Politicians, celebrities, fans, friends and family have recently gathered for a memorial service to celebrate the life of Maya Angelou who passed away last month, aged 86. Hailed as one of the most influential people of our time, Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were amongst those paying tribute to the life of this remarkable woman.
Born as Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou changed her name when she became involved in the entertainment industry. A professional chameleon, Maya chose to embrace each one of her talents. Throughout her career she was an author, journalist, poet, dancer, actress, director, singer and human rights activist. She is perhaps most revered for being a voice for black people; her works are considered a defence of black culture.
Angelou taught at Wake Forest University in North Carolina from 1982, where she became the first lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies. She was also greatly involved in the Civil Rights Movement and worked alongside many influential activists including Martin Luther King Jr. She has received many awards for her works and over 30 honorary doctoral degrees, holding regular lectures and literary readings right up until her passing.
From birth, through adolescence, Maya faced many challenges, which she brought to light in her first book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Here she presents a candid account of what life was like growing up in southern America. She lived in a place and time confronted with racism, embodied by daily injustices and ill-behaved gangs, but she would later discover that her life was to be nourished by these aspects.
At the age of 3, Maya’s parents separated so she and her brother lived with their Grandmother, Annie. Angelou recounts the feelings of inequality and inferiority she felt at this period of her life through the racist encounters she experienced. At the age of 8, Maya and Bailey were taken unexpectedly to live with their mother, Vivian, in Missouri. Here, she unwillingly experienced a sexual encounter with her mother’s partner and he subsequently passed away at the hands of her Uncles.
In the book, Maya recounts the discomfort and responsibility she felt for the passing away of the man, and as a result she refrained from speaking to anyone except her brother for several years. After returning to live with her Grandmother, Angelou met Bertha Flowers who helped her speak again. It was Flowers who introduced her to the literature that would later influence her writing career.
Maya Angelou also notes the challenge of racism throughout her adolescence and recounted many testing incidents and situations faced by black people at that time. At the age of 16 Angelou became pregnant and gave birth to a son whom she raised singlehandedly until she married in 1951.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, gained the public figure worldwide acclamation and it was to be one of many literary works for Angelou. Whilst the situations she recounts were trying, she has taken those experiences, learned from them and used them constructively to help others by speaking out.
The essence of Maya Angelou can be prominently viewed through the fact that her autobiographical works broke the mould of autobiographical writing, as she changed the structure and nature of the concept. Additionally, there have been attempts to ban her books in some parts of America. However, in true form, Angelou’s words reign and her work continues to be sold worldwide.
Angelou spoke about her own life confidently, with honesty, she created revolutionary change and is perhaps most celebrated in her ability to help others and inspire them to do the same. It is clear that Maya could have quite easily sank, nevertheless, she defied the odds, and swum. She has changed the world as a result.
Her story and works influence black people, and women in general and can work universally to inspire anybody to speak out, break down restrictive barriers and have confidence in their own expression. Her passing and subsequent memorial service has allowed these productive values to hold the limelight and invite us to reflect constructively on our own lives.
What can Maya Angelou’s life story teach us today?