The purpose of this paper is to introduce and discuss author Maya Angelou, and some of her most important works. Specifically, it will discuss why her work is important, and give a brief biography of the writer. Maya Angelou has been an inspiration to writers, women, and Blacks ever since she began writing. Her career has spanned decades, and shows no signs of slowing down. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, Maya Angelou and her works are national treasures, meant to be enjoyed, contemplated, and to give inspiration forever.
Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Her name was Marguerite Annie Johnson. Her brother Bailey gave her the nickname "Maya," for "My" and "my sister."
Maya's mother, Vivian Baxter, was a nurse and card dealer; her father, Bailey Johnson Sr., was a doorman and also a dietician or meal adviser for the navy. They had a difficult marriage that ended in divorce and in their subsequent inability to deal with their young children. When Maya was three and her brother Bailey four, their father deposited the children on a train from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, home of Bailey Sr.'s mother, Annie Henderson, owner and operator of a general store
When she was eight years old, her mother's boyfriend raped her, and it affected her deeply. For several years, she simply did not speak. She moved to California, and graduated from high school in San Francisco. She also grew close to her mother, who she had not seen since she had gone to live in Arkansas with her grandmother.
Her first book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was published in 1970, when Angelou was 41. In 1971, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Before she began her writing career, she worked as an actress, dancer, and singer, having performed in a touring production of "Porgy and Bess," Jean Genet's play, "The Blacks," and the acclaimed television series, "Roots." When she was sixteen, she was the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
She began formally writing in the 1960s, but she knew she was a writer from an early age.
Q: When did you know you were a writer? A: I knew I could write by the time I was 20. I could write. I had spent six years as a mute, and so I had read everything. And I had memorized. I memorized 60 sonnets. And I memorized Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen... And Edgar Allan Poe. I loved Poe so much I called him "Eap" to myself" (Weaver L1).
Her first published piece was a play that was performed in Los Angeles called "The Least of These." She also worked as a director for stage and film. She lives in North Carolina, and writes every day, in a hotel room she keeps year round, simply as an "office" where she can write. She also is a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Maya Angelou's body of work is varied and extensive. She has written six autobiographical works, numerous poems and essays, and even children's books. "Although all of these volumes are distinct in style and narration, they are unified through a number of repeated themes and through the developing character of the narrator" (Lupton 1).
Her first book was "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Written in 1970, it tells the story of her young life, when she was sent to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, and begins when Maya was only three years old.
This first volume also recounts the rape when she was eight, and how deeply it scarred her. She is the "caged bird" of the story, and she feels the cage is one that holds all Blacks hostage in America. The book ends with Maya giving birth to her illegitimate baby, and sets the foundation for the rest of her autobiographical works.
The second book, "Gather Together in My Name," begins in San Francisco, where Maya was living with her mother when she gave birth, and it is an often dark recount of her coming of age. Trying to take care of her son, Angelou takes on a variety of roles, from mother to prostitute. "She also exposes herself to a number of risky relationships with men: a dancer; a married man who sells stolen clothes; a vein-scarred drug user" (Lupton 76). Angelou grows up over the course of this book, and begins to become the woman who will turn into such a gifted writer. At the end of the book, a good friend takes her in hand, and shows her a heroin den, showing her the awful damage the drug can do. Angelou is scared enough to denounce her lifestyle, and return to living with her mother to get her life together.
By the third book, "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas," Angelou has given up her former ways, but she does not have any self-confidence. She feels ugly, and "out of tune" with her life and what is going on around her. She meets and marries her first husband in this book, and divorces him by the end. Each book is a stepping-stone through her life, and this book is no exception. As she learns more about herself, she becomes more completely a woman, and more comfortable with herself. In this book, she is negative about herself, and totally engrossed in her son, Guy. She also made history with this third book in the series. "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas' marks an historical moment in the history of African-American autobiography. At this time, no other well-known black female autobiographer had taken her story into a third volume" (Lupton 98).
By the time her fourth book came out, America and the world was familiar with the young Black woman trying to make her way in the world. "The Heart of a Woman" covers a pivotal time in American history, the late 50s, and early 60s, when race became a national and extremely volatile issue. In this volume, Angelou begins to work with Martin Luther King, Jr., and first begins to write. She moves to New York City, and works extensively with King as a fund-raiser. She also meets her second husband, and moves to Egypt with him, but discovers he is unfaithful, and leaves for Liberia, hoping to live in freedom at last. On their way, Guy is injured in a car crash in Ghana, and this is how the book ends. This is her most political book, and gives readers an idea of her beliefs, and what led her to leave the United States. "I disagreed. Black people could never be like whites. We were different. More respectful, more merciful, more spiritual" (Angelou 172).
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes" tells the story of her four years in Ghana. While it continues Angelou's own story, it also shows Guy in detail: recovering from the car accident, studying at the University of Ghana, and becoming an independent and mature adult. This volume illustrates the great love Angelou had for her son, while continuing to show her own growth and development.
Angelou's autobiographies receive their shape from personal and cultural referents rather than from the necessities of plot, as in mystery novels or spy fiction. Whereas a novel is a kind of narrative that must be concluded, an autobiography is an unfinished narrative, told in the first person by the adult who recollects it years later. "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes" cannot conclude the series because there are potentially more autobiographies to be written, from images and actions that remain in the repository of memories that connect her to the people around her (Lupton 142).
Lupton was right, another book followed "Traveling Shoes" in 2002, and completes the look back at what made Angelou what she is today. The final book ends in 1968, after the assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., which both rocked Angelou to the core. The book ends as she begins to write "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and brings the author full circle in her life.
Each of Angelou's works is not only a story of her own life; it is the story of anyone growing up Black in America. Angelou takes difficult circumstances, creates a full and satisfying life from them, and shows what attitude and determination can do for a person.
All of her works, even those that are not autobiographical, are clearly related to the author's life, and how she sees the world. She said in an interview that being Black was an honor. "So I would say the power I have first comes directly from being a descendant of people whose powerful history makes me humble. I would think, if I had been born anything other than Black and other than a Black American woman,…