Remembering Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and many other acclaimed titles.

 Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and many other acclaimed titles.

Maya Angelou is the opposite of her quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,” because people will never forget any aspect of her. Her words will still linger, her actions will still be remembered and honored, and people will never forget how [she] made them feel. Angelou is one of the greatest authors to have ever lived, and will go down in history as a remarkable poet.

Angelou was born as Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4th 1928, in Saint Louis, Missouri. At the age of three, her and her brother moved to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother because of their parents’ divorce. During her time in Arkansas, she experienced a lot of racism. At the age of seven, while visiting her mother in Chicago, she was abused by her mothers’ boyfriend which affected her in tremendous ways.  She didn’t tell anyone but her brother about the incident, only to find out later that her uncles had killed her attacker. After hearing the news, she remained silent for five years, believing it was her voice that killed him.

At a young age, Angelou won a scholarship to study dance and drama at the Labor School in San Francisco, only to quit at the age of 14 to become San Francisco’s first African American female cable car conductor. She went back to high school to get her diploma. During senior year, Angelou got pregnant with her son, Guy, who she gave birth to after graduation. At 17-years-old, she left home as a single mother with her son Guy and worked as a cook and a waiter, holding on to her dreams of becoming a writer, dance, musician and performer.

She composed several song lyrics, as her passion for writing grew during the 1950’s. By the end of that decade, she moved to New York to join the Harlem Writer’s Guide. While living in New York she performed in The Blacks, an Off-Broadway production written by Jean Genet. She also wrote and performed in Cabaret for Freedom. In 1960, she left New York with her second husband, civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, and her son to Cairo, Egypt. While living in Egypt she became editor of The Arab Observer – an English Language weekly newspaper. A year later she moved with her son to Ghana and became a professor at the University of Ghana’s school of Music and Drama. She also became a feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. As she was living abroad she studied and mastered several languages including French, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and Fantie – a West-African dialect.

Coming back to the United States in 1964, Angelou intended to work alongside Malcolm X in the Organization of Afro-American Unity, but instead received news of Mr. X’s assassination. Alternatively, Angelou got a request from Martin Luther King Jr. to become the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Four years later, on Angelou’s birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. passed away, leaving her in shock. James Baldwin – another great African American writer – was able to help her get through the devastating moment, and with his help Angelou found comfort in writing and she began to write what is now known to be I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – which tells her story from when she was a child living in Arkansas up until she gave birth to her son. This book became a success after it was published in the year of 1969. Because of her book, she became a national figure. She wrote, as well as composed, the film Georgia. It became the first screenplay written by an African American women to be filmed. The film was then nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Her poems have been called the anthems of African Americans.

Angelou wrote several more autobiography books, poems, and screenplays during the course of her lifetime. She also won several awards, including the 2010 Medal of Freedom, Presidential Medal of the Arts, and the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal.

Angelou died early morning on Wednesday, May 28, 2014 in her home in North Carolina at the age of 86. She has touched the hearts of millions during her lifetime with not only her lectures, but her books, poems, and screenplays. Angelou will never be forgotten and will always be remembered as a person of leadership.

– Gaelle Gilles