Maya Angelou attained international fame in 1969 with the publication of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; however, the seeds of her acclaim were planted long before. Raised primarily by her grandmother in Arkansas, Maya attributed her first important lessons to the woman she affectionately calls "Momma." With those lessons and other hard-earned knowledge, Maya progressed from being a victim of racism and sexual brutality with low self-esteem to a confident, skilled, dignified artist who is globally recognized for her wisdom.
Capturing Maya Angelou in a brief biography is impossible, for her many gifts and accomplishments read more like a "group biography." Interviewed in 2003 about her amazingly productive life and reputed wisdom, Maya said, "I'm considered wise, and sometimes I see myself as knowing. Most of the time, I see myself as wanting to know. I've never been bored in my life" (Moore). She was born "Marguerite Johnson" on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson (Cecil). In 1931, both Bailey Johnson, Jr. And 3-year-old Maya were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Annie "Momma" Johnson Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas (Mayaangelou.com). In 1935, 7-year-old Maya was sent back to St. Louis, along with her brother, to live with their mother. In 1936, Maya was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was arrested, convicted and released. Soon after his release, the rapist was found beaten to death, reportedly by Maya's uncles (A&E Television Networks). Believing that telling of the rape caused the rapist's murder, Angelou was mute to all but her brother for nearly six years. In 1937, Maya and her brother were sent back to Stamps, AR to live with "Momma" Johnson again, where Maya remained until 1941 (Cecil). Speaking of her mother's extended absences from her life, Maya said, "I was an abandoned child, as far as I was concerned" (Moore).
In 1940, Maya graduated with honors from Lafayette Country Training School in Stamps, AR. Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1941 to live with her mother and "Daddy Clidell," Maya attended night school at California Labor School. Maya became the first black female trolley car conductor in San Francisco in 1944, graduating from Mission High School and giving birth to her son Clyde (Guy) that same year (Cecil). An unwed mother of 17, Maya thanks her own mother -- absent from most of her early childhood -- for giving her the needed support to bear and raise her son at such an early age. As Maya said, "Well, my mom was a terrible parent of young children…but my mother was a great parent of a young adult" (Moore). In fact, Maya's mother -- who was a nurse as well as a seaman -- delivered the baby (Moore). Maya has described her mother's reaction to the news of Maya's pregnancy:
"When she found out I was pregnant, she said, 'All right. Run me a bath, please.' Well, in my family, that's really a very nice thing for somebody to ask you to do. Maybe two or three times in my life she had asked me to run her a bath. So I ran her a bath and then she invited me in the bathroom. My mother sat down in the bathtub. She asked me, 'Do you love the boy?' I said no. 'Does he love you?' I said no. 'Well, there's no point in ruining three lives. We're going to have us a baby'" (Moore).
From 1949 -- 1952, Maya was married to Tosh Angelos; however, in 1952, Maya won a scholarship to study dance with Pearl Primus (Cecil). In 1954, Maya adopted her current name of "Maya Angelou," gave her first professional performance at the "Purple Onion," and toured Europe in 1954-1955 with the company of Porgy and Bess (Mayaangelou.com). Maya also studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced on early TV variety shows and recorded her first album, Calypso Lady, in 1957. She moved to New York in 1958 and joined the "Harlem Writers Guild," acted in Jean Genet's off-Broadway production of The Blacks and wrote/performed in Cabaret for Freedom with Godfrey Cambridge (Cecil).
Maya lived abroad from 1960 -- 1964, first in Cairo, Egypt to edit the English language weekly magazine, The Arab Observer. She moved to Ghana in 1961 and taught at the School of Music and Drama, University of Ghana, where she was also feature editor for The African Review and writer for The Ghanaian Times. During her years abroad, Maya learned the languages of French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti. Also, Maya met Malcolm X, who persuaded her to return to America in 1964 to help build the "Organization of African-American Unity." Tragically, Malcolm X was assassinated shortly after returning to the United States and his visionary organization died shortly afterward (Mayaangelou.com).
After Malcolm X's death, Maya embarked on a new mission with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., serving as northern coordinator of the "Southern Christian Leadership Conference." King's assassination on her birthday in 1968 desolated but also inspired Maya, who turned to writing her first book and one of her most memorable works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969 (Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). The publication of this book while she was a writer in residence at the University of Kansas catapulted Maya to an international fame. A poet as well as a prose writer and performer, Maya wrote and performed prolifically after Caged Bird, married Paul Du Feu (1973 -- 1980) and published her seminal book of poetry, And Still I Rise, in 1978 (Poemhunter.com).
In all, Maya has published more than 30 bestsellers of poetry, fiction and non-fiction (Mayaangelou.com). Her film and television work is also extensive, including: her Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1972 screenplay of Georgia; her appearance in Alex Haley's Roots; the 1996 direction of her first feature film, Down in the Delta; and her 2008 poetry and narration of the documentary, The Black Candle (Mayaangelou.com). Her public service and acclaim are also exceptional. Among her numerous achievements and awards, she has served on two Presidential committees, won three Grammys, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts (2000) and the Lincoln Medal (2008), and has received more than 30 honorary degrees (American Academy of Achievement). Today, she is Wake Forest University's Reynolds Professor of American Studies (Mayaangelou.com). Maya explained her willingness to fulfill a dizzying number of requests for assistance, personal appearances and forays into new areas by saying, "If I'm asked, 'Can you do this?' I think, if I don't do it, it'll be ten years before another black woman is asked to do it. And I say, yes, yes, when do you want it?" (Moore).
3. Three Illustrative Works: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Grandmother's Victory, and Still I Rise
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, was Maya's first book (Mayaangelou.com). The first in a six-volume autobiography, Caged Bird chronicles the stages of Maya's life from the age of 3, when she was sent to live with "Momma" Johnson in Arkansas, to the birth of her son when she was 17 (Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Frankly describing the trauma and racism she endured through prejudice, her mother's extended absences and rape, the book is also an account of Maya's triumph over those potentially crippling influences through her love of literature and strong personal character. Caged Bird also uses powerful metaphors: Maya's rape at the age of eight is a metaphor for the racist treatment of her people; a bird beating its wings bloody against a cage in order to escape is a metaphor for the lessons about dealing effectively with racist oppression. Maya's gradual transformation from an insecure "victim" to a composed, confident 17-year-old is best illustrated by the book's frequently repeated quotation, "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song" (Mayaangelou.com). A timely and unique work, the book was nominated for the National Book Award, gave Maya international acclaim and is still widely-read more than 40 years after its publication (Mayaangelou.com).
Grandmother's Victory is a 4-5-page 1969 tribute to the maternal grandmother, Annie "Momma" Johnson Henderson, who was largely responsible for raising Maya in Stamps, Arkansas (Angelou, Chapter 1: Narration | Grandmother's Victory by Maya Angelou 14-19). Describing her own barely controlled anger and her grandmother's quiet dignity in the face of racism, Maya uses the examples of "powhitetrash" disrespectfully treating her grandmother in ways that were unthinkable to Maya. The "victory" itself involved an incident occurring on the porch and in the front yard of her grandmother's house. Several young white girls mimicked and mocked her grandmother and debased themselves in a futile attempt to debase her grandmother. Her grandmother's victory was her quietly dignified and polite response, which made the "powhitetrash" incapable of debasing her. Watching the incident from inside her grandmother's house, Maya stated, "Something had happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand, but…