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Meet Maya Angelou
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March 8th 2021

Meet Maya Angelou

        The stunning Maya Angelou is by far one of the more profound poets of my lifetime, and I treasured the beauty she saw in the written word to convey feelings, painting elaborate and powerful pictures, and influencing the world around her. My favorite poem of hers is Still I Rise

Still I Rise


You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don't you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

        The powerful voice sent chills down my spine and raised the hairs on my arm the first time I read that poem. She singles out prejudice and inequality and the struggle to overcome them in a forward way and doesn’t mince her words. It has risen to the ranks of an anthem for those who have been oppressed and are subjugated. She drew upon her experiences as an African American living pre-civil rights movement as well as her experiences during the civil rights movement, having met the likes of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

        She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, and it was her brother who would give her the nickname Maya based on his “My or Mya sister”. Her parents’ chaotic marriage came to an end, which saw her and her brother sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother. Their grandmother had prospered in a way most in the African American community didn’t due to her general store which sold items throughout the Great Depression and World War I. Four years later, her father would randomly show up and remove them from their stable home life to put them back into their mother’s care. This proved a disastrous moment in Maya’s life, as she ended up sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the time. Maya confided in her brother who then told the rest of the family. The perpetrator served only one day in jail for the crime before being released, however, karma would find him murdered four days after release, presumably by Maya’s uncles though nothing was found to tie them to it.

        After the man’s death, Maya became mute for five years, proclaiming her belief that it was her that had gotten the man killed, as she told her brother his name and outted his sins. This was the moment where she started delving into books, observing the world around her, harnessing her extraordinary memory, and listening to those around her. After her experience, she and her brother were sent back to live with their grandmother, where Maya met one of the most important figures in her life. Her teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, is who she credited with working with her to speak again. Slowly pulling herself out from her internal hiding place, Bertha shared with Maya the works of authors like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson and Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset, who would end up greatly influencing her career and life.

        When Maya was high school-aged, her brother and she went back to live with their mom, who had relocated to Oakland, California at the time. Maya became the first black woman to run a cable car in San Francisco, and this led her to obtain a life-time achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials through their session called “Women Who Move the Nation”. Three weeks after she completed her high school career, she gave birth to her first child, Clyde, though he would later change his name.

 It’s hard to briefly sum up such a marvelous career and I would need several pages to share all the outstanding and sometimes controversial moves she made within her lengthy career. Some of the jobs she held were as a prostitute, a madame, dancer, table dancer at a nightclub, paint stripper in a mechanic shop, a cook at a hamburger place and later Creole kitchen, a Calypso singer and dancer, a magazine editor in Cairo The Arab Observer, a Features Editor in Ghana on African Review, freelance writer, and a broadway talent.

These things helped to create the strong, wonderfully independent, experienced wordsmith, and passionate individual we all know and love. In my lifetime, I knew her as an activist, author, and actress more so than anything else. Her work within the Civil Rights Movement was wrought with depression and heartache as she was asked by Malcolm X to help him start a new organization called Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after its founding, Malcolm X was assassinated, which deeply affected Maya. Due to the dwindling members caused by Malcolm X’s absence, the organization soon collapsed. After Malcolm X’s death, she went to work as a marketing researcher, where she had a front row seat to the 1965 riots. Maya was approached by Martin Luther King Jr. to help organize a march. Another devastating blow and one which haunted her would soon come after she postponed the march, when Martin Luther King Jr. was forever silenced, as Malcolm X had been, on Maya’s birthday. The deep depression and guilt that followed saw her become the most real and raw version of herself there had ever been. It saw a period of her life where through the losses she suffered, the depth of her creative genius and spirit shone through. She wrote, produced, and narrated Black, Blues, and Black! This was a ten part series aired on the precursor to PBS, National Educational Television.

Georgia, Georgia, who’s screenplay was written by Maya, was entered into the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival. This is credited as being the first known film production for a screenplay written by a Black woman. Maya also composed the film score for the film.

One of the most well known roles I remember first seeing her in was the TV mini-series Roots, where she played the supporting role of Nyo Boto. Then her portrayal of Aunt June in Poetic Justice, followed by her performance in How to Make an American Quilt as Anna really spoke to me. The way she spoke, the eloquence of it and how she packed a punch with every word, was inspiring in all her roles on screen. She achieved her goal of directing a film in Down in the Delta, which was released in 1996.

        It was on a cold day in January when the world was able to see Maya shine as a beacon once more with the groundbreaking recitation of her poem On the Pulse of Morning during Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. I remember watching her, regal and majestic, holding her head up as she spoke the powerful words. At the time, I was a little girl and had no clue what a monumental moment I was witnessing. Maya was not only the second person in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration, but she was the first African American and the first woman in history to do so as well. After her endorsement of Hillary Clinton failed to raise her above Barack Obama in South Carolina, causing him to win the nomination, Maya put all her effort into stumping for Barack. Upon Barack’s presidential win, Maya stated, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.” Shortly after Obama’s win, Maya donated her entire collection of notes, letters, and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. She was also a consultant on the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. and was critical of a paraphrased quote taken from Martin Luther King Jr., to which she responded that, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit” and demanded it be taken down, which is exactly what happened.

        In her time as a writer, she wrote seven autobiographies, each focusing on various people or experiences in her life, and at the time of her death, she was writing her eighth one. She had thirty honorary degrees and held a professor position at Wake Forest University even though she did not have her bachelor’s degree. She passed away on May 28th, 2014. Her son, Guy Johnson, who has also enjoyed a prosperous career as a writer, during her memorial said this about his mother:

        “She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension.”


        As with Eartha Kitt, Maya’s light shone so brightly that the world became dimmer with her passing, though her influence will be felt throughout the ages for generations to come.

        Keira Lane