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The Journey That Made Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was one of the most prolific poets of her generation and on. Most known for her poetry, Angelou brought a lot more to the table than just her poetry and left more than her words as her legacy. With over 50 honorary doctorate degrees Dr. Maya Angelou was a memoirist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist.

Born in the pre-civil rights era as Marguerite Johnson on April 4th, 1928, in St Louis Missouri, Angelou knew and felt the heaviness of being Black at the time. Once her parents' marriage had ended, she was sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps,Arkansas. While many Black people struggled financially, especially during the Great Depression and World War II, Angelous’ grandmother was very well off due to her wise investments and the popularity of the convenience store she owned. Four years following, at eight years old, her father came to Stamps and shipped her and her brother back to their mother in St.Louis. When she returned home, it wasn’t the home she remembered. After being sexually abused and raped by her mothers’ boyfriend she became mute for nearly five years. She 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." According to the biography written by her colleagues, that period of silence is what helped to develop her love for literature and heightened her ability to listen and observe the world around her. Shortly after the murder of her abuser, she was sent back to live with her grandmother. Angelou credits a teacher and family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, to help her find her voice again by introducing her to authors like Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, and more. At 15 years old she and her brother were sent back with their mother, who had since moved to California where Angelou attended the California Labor School and 2 years later she became the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco.

In 1951 Angelou married a Greek electrician, despite the scorn that interracial couples would have at the time. Through taking modern dance classes she met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Ailey and Angelou ended up forming a dance duo, “Al and Rita” and they performed modern dance at Black organizations throughout San Francisco but couldn’t gain popularity. Angelou, her husband, and son soon moved to New York City so she could study African Dance but ended up returning to CA. After her divorce in ‘54 she sang and danced professionally in clubs. Going by her government name of “Rita” her manager at one of the clubs told her she should go by Maya Angelou because it’s more distinctive, and it was. The name change set her so much that she was able to tour Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess and took the time to learn the language of every country she visited. After meeting novelist John Oliver Killens in ‘59, Angelou moved to New York to focus on her writing. Joining the Harlem's Writers Guild put her in the position to meet several Black authors like John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Juilian Mayfield and she was published for the first time. After meeting and hearing Dr. Martin Luther King JR. for the first time she and Killens organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was named the Northern Coordinator. This is also the time that Angelou began her pro-Castro and Anti Apartheid activism.

Soon after Angelou began her work on what would end up becoming “I know why the Caged Bird Sings”. Later published in 1970, the book garnered international acclaim and made the bestseller list. Due to the brutal honesty about the sexual abuse she suffered from in the past, the book was also banned from many schools. Fast forward to now and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has become a course adoption at college campuses around the world. With more than 30 best selling titles, Angelou has written 36 books before her demise.