Best known for her 1969 autobiography ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, which detailed the good, the bad, and the ugly of her life as a Black woman in 20th-century America, Maya Angelou was deeply steeped in both the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition of the likes of John Donne and Shakespeare and the contemporary work of African-American women poets like Anne Spencer and Jessie Fauset, who are largely unknown today. Perhaps as a result of this, a woman who was an ‘outsider’ by race, sex, and class was able to speak in a way that could reach those who might otherwise have overlooked her, and those like her. In 1993 she recited one of her poems, ‘On The Pulse of Morning’ at the inauguration of US President Bill Clinton.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
From ‘On The Pulse Of The Morning’, 1993
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson into a troubled family in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou spent part of her early life with her grandparents in Arkansas. At the age of eight she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, and her brother told their family, who went to the cops. A few days later the rapist was found, apparently beaten to death. Angelou believed that this was her fault, as she had spoken her assailant’s name aloud, and stopped talking for a number of years.
And yet, it was during this period of suffering that the seeds of her remarkable career were sown. Sent back to her grandmother she met teacher Bertha Flowers, the woman who would introduce her to the myriad of poets and writers who would become her inspiration. Angelou read voraciously and committed vast chunks of poetry and literature to memory.
Her teenaged years and early adulthood were turbulent, a fact which Angelou never shied away from. She worked a variety of jobs, from streetcar conductor to prostitute, became a mother at seventeen, and married for the first time in 1951, to Tosh Angelos, a Greek – a controversial move at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in some states. Although the marriage didn’t last, Angelou ultimately adopted a variation on her husband’s last name, paired with ‘Maya’, her brother’s pet name from their childhood, as a distinctive stage-name, suitable for her 1950s career as a dancer and singer. In 1954-55 she toured Europe in a production of American opera ‘Porgy and Bess’.
By the 1960s her focus had shifted to writing and the civil rights movement. She met Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr, and was an effective fundraiser and organiser for the cause. Then in 1961 she met the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make: while they never officially married, Angelou moved with him to Cairo in Egypt, then left him to go to Ghana a year later. By 1965 she was back in the USA, working for civil rights once again, this time alongside Malcolm X. It was during this period that she began work on her first, and arguably finest, autobiography, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.’
She married again in 1973, to Welsh carpenter and former husband of Germaine Greer, Paul du Feu. She spent the 1970s writing in a variety of genre, including poetry, and also acting, appearing in the acclaimed television mini-series ‘Roots’. In 1981 she divorced for a second time and moved to the southern USA to come to terms with her past and pursue a teaching career at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. She continued to speak, teach, and write throughout the 1990s and right up to her death on May 28th 2014, garnering increasing recognition as well as some criticism from those who thought her more of a celebrity than an intellect.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust,
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
From ‘Still I Rise’, 1978
And yet Angelou’s work is rich with literary and biblical – she was a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for thirty years – allusions, whilst also being deeply grounded in 20th-century America and a deep and authentic understanding of what it means to be an outsider. Above all else, it is rich with hope.