Maya Angelou ( born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet who has been called "America's most visible black female autobiographer" by scholar Joanne M. Braxton. She is best known for her series of six autobiographical volumes, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her first seventeen years. It brought her international recognition, and was nominated for a National Book Award. She has been awarded over 30 honorary degrees and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie.
Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since 1991, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. In 1995, she was recognized for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was heralded as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She is highly respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women. Angelou's work is often characterized as autobiographical fiction. She has, however, made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books, centered on themes such as identity, family, and racism, are often used as set texts in schools and universities internationally.
Some of her more controversial work has been challenged or banned in US schools and libraries.
Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a doorman and navy dietitian. Her mother, Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, was a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later a merchant marine. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya", shortened from "my-a-sister". The details of Angelou's life described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her".
Evidence suggests that Angelou's family is descended from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that her maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, had been emancipated after the Civil War. The documentary suggested that Lee became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin, who forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After indicting Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, a grand jury found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in (Missouri) with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou's grandmother. Angelou described Lee as "that poor little Black girl, physically and mentally bruised."
The first 17 years of Angelou's life are documented in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas alone by train to live with her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Henderson prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments". Four years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis.
At age eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for one day. Four days after his release, he was found kicked to death, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute, believing, as she has stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone..." She remained mute for nearly five years. Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again.
Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, a Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 13, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in San Francisco. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School, then studying dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet. At the end of Angelou's third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her son changed his name to "Guy Johnson".
Angelou's second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19. This book "depicts a single mother's slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime." Angelou at times worked as a prostitute and as the madam of a brothel. The book describes how she moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.
Adulthood and early career
Angelou has been married three times or more (something she has never clarified, "for fear of sounding frivolous"). In her third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, Angelou describes her three-year marriage to Greek sailor Tosh Angelos in 1949. Up to that point she went by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but changed her professional name to "Maya Angelou." Her managers at San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion strongly suggested that she adopt a more theatrical name that captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances.
In 1952, she won a scholarship and trained in African dance with dancer Pearl Primus of Trinidad. Later Angelou studied modern dance with Martha Graham. The dance team "Al and Rita" she co-created with choreographer Alvin Ailey combined elements of modern dance, ballet, and West African dance. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of Calypso music, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
In the late 1950s, Angelou moved to New York City and began to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, headed by her friend, novelist James O. Killens. She met a number of major African American authors, including her close friend and mentor James Baldwin, and published for the first time. After meeting and hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960, she and Killens organized "the legendary" Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was named SCLC's Northern Coordinator. In 1961, she performed in Jean Genet's The Blacks, along with Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, and Cicely Tyson. According to Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and "eminently effective". Also in 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, who brought her and Guy to live with him in Cairo, where Angelou began working as an associate editor at the weekly newspaper Arab Observer.
In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Ghana. She became an assistant administrator and instructor at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, was a feature editor for The African Review, acted in and wrote plays. After becoming close friends with Malcolm X, Angelou returned to the US in 1964 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1968 Martin King asked her to organize a march, but he too was assassinated, on her birthday (April 4). Instead of celebrating her birthday, she sent flowers to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, until King's death in 2006. Inspired by a meeting with her friend James Baldwin, Angelou dealt with her grief at King's assassination in 1968 by writing her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, which brought her first international recognition and acclaim.
In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a British-born carpenter and remodeler, and moved to Sonoma, California with him. The years to follow were some of Angelou's most productive as a writer and poet. She worked as a composer, writing for singer Roberta Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and spoke on the university lecture circuit. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first original script by a Black woman to be produced. In the late '70s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's close friend and mentor. Angelou divorced de Feu and returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
In 1993, she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit.
Angelou campaigned for the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries, giving her public support to Senator Hillary Clinton. In the run up to the January Democratic primary in South Carolina, the Clinton campaign ran ads featuring Angelou's endorsement, attempting to rally support in the Black community; but Obama won the South Carolina primary; finishing 29 points ahead of Clinton and taking 80% of the Black vote. When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Senator Barack Obama, who won the election and became the first African American president of the United States. She stated, "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism". In 2009, Angelou campaigned for the same-sex marriage bill in New York state.
Angelou was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998, at the age of seventy.
In February 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with President George H.W. Bush, businessman Warren Buffett, and civil rights activist John Lewis.
Although Angelou wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, without the intention of writing a series, she went on to write five additional volumes. They are distinct in style and narration. The volumes "stretch over time and place", from Arkansas to Africa and back to the US. They take place from the beginnings of World War II to King's assassination. As author Lyman B. Hagen states, Angelou has "opened her life to public scrutiny through her works". Like Caged Bird, the events in these books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Angelou's book of essays, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1993), contains materials that are autobiographical in content.
Critics have tended to judge Angelou's subsequent autobiographies "in light of the first", with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou has used the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, who has been called "one of publishing's hall of fame editors." Angelou has said regarding Loomis: "We have a relationship that's kind of famous among publishers".
Angelou's long and extensive career also includes poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting, and public speaking. She is a prolific writer of poetry; her volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" during his inauguration in 1993.
Angelou has had a successful career as a playwright and actress. In 1977, she appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced. At the age of seventy, Angelou was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998. In 2006 she had a cameo in Madea's Family Reunion as "May". In 2008, Angelou wrote poetry for and narrated the M. K. Asante, Jr. film The Black Candle.
Reception and legacy
When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description", has insisted that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole. Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. It made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer".
Author Hilton Als has insisted that although Caged Bird was an important contribution to the increase of black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributed its success less to its originality than with "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist", or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Als also insisted that Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, has freed many other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world". Angelou biographer Joanne M. Braxton has insisted that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era.
Angelou's books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, causing their removal from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to Caged Bird's depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence. Some have been critical of the book's sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions. Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000. It was fifth on the ALA's list of the ten most challenged books of the 21st century (2000–2005), and was one of the ten books most frequently banned from high school and junior high school libraries and classrooms.
The week after Angelou recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300–600%. Bantam Books had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and published the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase.
Uses in education
Angelou's autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teacher education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has used I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name to train teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms. Due to Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, readers of Angelou's autobiographies wonder what she "left out" and are unsure about how to respond to the events Angelou describes. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism force white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography".
Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener insisted that Angelou's book provides a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya face and how a community helps these children succeed as Angelou did. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He found the book a "highly effective" tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.
Style and genre
Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction, but Angelou has characterized them as autobiographies. As Lauret has stated, Angelou made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Lupton has insisted that all of Angelou's autobiographies conform to the genre's standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme. Angelou has also recognized that there are fictional aspects to her books. Lupton has stated that Angelou has tended to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth", i which has paralleled the conventions of much of African American autobiography written during the abolitionist period of US history, when the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection. Angelou has acknowledged that she has followed the slave narrative tradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'". Hagen places Angelou in the long tradition of African American autobiography, but insists that she has created a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form.
The challenge for much of African American literature is that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature before it could accomplish its political goals, which is why Robert Loomis, Angelou's editor, was able to dare her into writing Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered "high art". According to scholar Sondra O'Neale, whereas Angelou's poetry can be placed within the African American oral tradition, her prose "follows classic technique in nonpoetic Western forms".
O'Neale also states that although Angelou avoids a "monolithic Black language", it is obvious through direct dialogue that she is capable of what O'Neale calls a "more expected ghetto expressiveness".
When Angelou wrote Caged Bird at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature at the time was "organic unity", and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criteria. The events in her books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements do not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they are placed to emphasize the themes of her books. English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has asserted that "Angelou's poetry and prose are similar". They both rely on her "direct voice", which alternates steady rhythms with syncopated patterns and makes use of similes and metaphors (i.e., the caged bird). According to Hagen, Angelou's works have been influenced by both conventional literary and the oral traditions of the African American community. For example, she references over 100 literary characters throughout her books and poetry. In addition, she uses the elements of blues music, including the act of testimony when speaking of one's life and struggles, ironic understatement, and the use of natural metaphors, rhythms, and intonations.
Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has used the same "writing ritual" for many years. She wakes at five in the morning and checks into a hotel room, where the staff has been instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She writes on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible, and leaves by the early afternoon. She averages 10–12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to three or four pages in the evening. Angelou goes through this process to "enchant" herself, and as she has said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, "relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang." She places herself back in the time she is writing about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to "tell the human truth" about her life. Angelou has stated that she plays cards in order to get that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!" She does not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in "telling the truth".
Themes in Angelou's autobiographies
As feminist scholar Maria Lauret has indicated, Angelou and other female writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s used the autobiography to reimagine ways of writing about women's lives and identities in a male-dominated society. Lauret has made a connection between Angelou's autobiographies, which Lauret called "fictions of subjectivity" and "feminist first-person narratives", and fictional first-person narratives (such as The Women's Room by Marilyn French and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing) written during the same period. Both genres employ the narrator as protagonist and "rely upon the illusion of presence in their mode of signification". Lauret has also stated that "the formation of female cultural identity" has been woven into Angelou's narratives. Angelou has presented herself as a role model for African American women by reconstructing the Black woman's image throughout her autobiographies, and has used her many roles, incarnations, and identities to "signify multiple layers of oppression and personal history". Lauret has viewed Angelou's themes of the individual's strength and ability to overcome throughout Angelou's autobiographies as well.
Author Hilton Els has insisted that while Angelou's original goal was to "tell the truth about the lives of black women", her goal evolved in her later volumes to document the ups and downs of her own life. Els has stated that Angelou's autobiographies have the same structure: they give a historical overview of the places she was living in at the time and how she coped within the context of a larger white society, as well as the ways that her story played out within that context. Critic Selwyn Cudjoe agreed with Els, and stated that Angelou, especially in her third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, successfully demonstrated "the inviolability of the [African American] personhood" as she expanded positive interactions with whites. In Angelou's second volume, Gather Together in My Name, Angelou was concerned with what it meant to be a black female in the US, but she focused upon herself at a certain point in history. As Cudjoe has said, "It is almost as though the incidents in the text were simply 'gathered together' under the name of Maya Angelou".
One of the most important themes in Angelou's autobiographies are "kinship concerns", from the character-defining experience of her parents' abandonment to her relationships with her son, husbands, and lovers throughout all of her books. African American literature scholar Dolly McPherson has insisted that Angelou's concept of family throughout her books must be understood in the light of the way in which she and her older brother were displaced by their parents at the beginning of Caged Bird. Motherhood is a "prevailing theme" in all of Angelou's autobiographies, specifically her experiences as a single mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter. Lupton believes that Angelou's plot construction and character development were influenced by this mother/child motif found in the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Jessie Fauset.
Scholar Mary Burgher has stated that black women autobiographers like Angelou have debunked the stereotypes of African American mothers of "breeder and matriarch" and have presented them as having "a creative and personally fulfilling role". Scholar Sondra O'Neale agrees, and insists that Angelou's autobiographies present black women differently than literature had portrayed them up to that time. O'Neale goes on to state that "no Black woman in the world of Angelou's books are losers", and that Angelou herself is the third generation of "brilliantly resourceful females" who overcame the obstacles of racism and oppression.
Lupton has stated that the one unifying theme that connects all of Angelou's autobiographies is what she has called "the mother-child pattern". Angelou describes throughout her books her connection of mother and child—with herself and her son Guy, with herself and her own mother, and with herself and her grandmother. Although Angelou's grandmother ("Momma") dies early in the series, in Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her third autobiography, Momma is quoted throughout the entire series. Other themes include the absent and/or substitute father, the use of food as a psychosexual symbol, and the use of staring or gazing for dramatic and symbolic effect. They are also related through literary elements such as the ambivalent autobiographical voice, the flexibility of structure to illustrate the disjointedness of life, and Angelou's commentary on character and theme.
Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage described in the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, "Sympathy", as a "central image" throughout all of her autobiographies. Like elements within a prison narrative, the caged bird represents Angelou's confinement resulting from racism and oppression. This metaphor also invokes the "supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle". At least one reviewer criticized Angelou for harboring "a fanatic hostility expressed toward all white people". Writer Lyman B. Hagen disagrees, stating that, like Angelou's friend and mentor Langston Hughes, Angelou "explains and illuminates" the condition of African Americans in the US, but without alienating her readers. For example, Angelou promotes the importance of hard work, a common theme in slave narratives, throughout all her autobiographies, in order to break the African American stereotype of laziness.
Critic Pierre A. Walker has placed Angelou's autobiographies in the African American literature tradition of political protest written in the years following the American Civil Rights movement. Walker has emphasized that the unity of Angelou's autobiographies serves to underscore one of Angelou's central themes: the injustice of racism and how to fight it. Walker has also stated that Angelou's biographies, beginning with Caged Bird, consist of "a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression". This sequence leads Angelou, as the protagonist, from "helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest" throughout all six of her autobiographies. Hagen states that Angelou changes, in the course of her autobiographies, her views about Black-white relationships and learns to accept different points of views. It is Angelou's "mental adjustments" regarding race, and specifically, about white people, that provides Angelou with freedom. He adds that one of Angelou's "universal themes" is that humans are more alike than different.
Awards and honors
Angelou is one of the most honored writers of her generation. She has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors include a National Book Award nomination for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. In 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Bantam Books, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List. In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. She has served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. Musician Ben Harper has honored Angelou with his song "I'll Rise", which includes words from her poem, "And Still I Rise." She has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees.