Maya Angelou, the charismatic American author and poet died this week aged 86. A role model and activist who recorded and celebrated the experience of being black in the United States, she was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis, Missouri on 4 April 1928. Her parents soon divorced and her mother, unable to cope with two small children, sent them to live with their grandmother, who kept a general store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas. The name Maya came from her brother’s childish way of saying “My-a sister”.
She spent the next 10 years growing up in one of America’s poorest regions, experiencing first-hand the racial segregation and prejudice of the Deep South. These experiences are brought to life in ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, published in 1970, it was the first volune of her bestselling autobiography.
Aged seven, on a visit to St Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she told her family what had happened the man was arrested, tried, released from jail and shortly afterwards murdered – probably by her mother’s brothers. She didn’t speak for five years. “I was a volunteer mute. I had voice but I refused to use it. When I heard about his murder, I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak. “After a while, I no longer knew why I didn’t speak, I simply didn’t speak.”
Although mute, she was a voracious reader and was persuaded to speak again by her grandmother’s friend, who recognised her passion for poetry and told her that, to be experienced fully, it had to be spoken aloud.
Going to live with her mother in San Francisco, she renewed her relationship with her father and aged 15 badgered a streetcar company into making her the city’s first female cable car conductor. At the age of 16 she gave birth to her only child, a son, after a one-night stand.
Her career included stints as a dancer, waitress, prostitute and pimp, actress and singer (she recorded an album of calypso songs), appearing on Broadway and travelling to Europe in a touring production of Porgy and Bess. She was married two or three times – the facts are vague -and took her surname from her first husband, an aspiring Greek musician called Enistasios Angelos.
In the sixties, she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King, then followed a South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make, to Cairo, where she became a journalist. Later she took her son to Ghana, where she met the black activist Malcolm X. She returned to the United States in 1965 to work with him, but he was killed shortly afterwards. A few years later Martin Luther King too was assassinated.
It was the writer James Baldwin who helped persuade her to write her first (of six) volumes of her autobiography. She also began publishing poetry, wrote a feature film screenplay, wrote and presented a 10-part TV series about the blues and black Americans’ African heritage. She played Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother in the ground-breaking TV series Roots, about the black experience of slavery.
She was probably the world’s best-known black female writer and one of America’s best-known black women
Life, she said, was to be lived. “The excitement is not just to survive but to thrive, and to thrive with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.” Maya Angelou’s books in Leeds Libraries