Maya Angelou "I write because I am a Black woman, listening attentively to her people". 1984. Fiona Callaway. Introduction.
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Dr. Maya Angelou is a remarkable Renaissance woman who is hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature. As a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director, she continues to travel the world, spreading her legendary wisdom. Within the rhythm of her poetry and elegance of her prose lies Angelou's unique power to help readers of every orientation span the lines of race and Angelou captivates audiences through the vigor and sheer beauty of her words and lyrics.
Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a doorman and navy dietitian. Her mother, Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, was a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later a merchant marine. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya", shortened from "my-a-sister".
Angelou has been married three times or more (something she has never clarified, "for fear of sounding frivolous"). In her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou describes her three-year marriage to Greek sailor Tosh Angelos in 1949.Up to that point she went by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but changed her professional name to "Maya Angelou." Her managers at San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion strongly suggested that she adopt a more theatrical name that captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances. In 1952, she won a scholarship and trained in African dance with dancer Pearl Primus of Trinidad. Later Angelou studied modern dance with Martha Graham. The dance team "Al and Rita" she co-created with choreographer Alvin Ailey combined elements of modern dance, ballet, and West African dance. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of Calypso music, Angelou recorded her first album,, She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a British-born carpenter and remodeler, and moved to Sonoma, California with him. The years to follow were some of Angelou's most productive as a writer and poet. She worked as a composer, writing for singer Robert Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and spoke on the university lecture circuit. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first original script by a Black woman to be produced. In the late '70s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's close friend and mentor. Angelou divorced de Feu and returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
In 1993, she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit.
Although Angelou wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, without the intention of writing a series, she went on to write five additional volumes. They are distinct in style and narration. The volumes "stretch over time and place", from Arkansas to Africa and back to the US. They take place from the beginnings of World War II to King's assassination. As author Lyman B. Hagen states, Angelou has "opened her life to public scrutiny through her works". Like Caged Bird, the events in these books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Women (1981), All Gods Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Angelou's book of essays, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1993), contains materials that are autobiographical in content. Critics have tended to judge Angelou's subsequent autobiographies "in light of the first", with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou has used the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, who has been called "one of publishing's hall of fame editors." Angelou has said regarding Loomis: "We have a relationship that's kind of famous among publishers".
All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated". --Maya Angelou
When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description", has insisted that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole. Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. It made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer".
Author Hilton Als has insisted that although Caged Bird was an important contribution to the increase of black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributed its success less to its originality than with "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist", or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights Movement. Als also insisted that Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, has freed many other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world". Angelou biographer Joanne M. Braxton has insisted that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era.
Angelou's autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teachers education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington university, has used I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name to train teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms. Due to Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, readers of Angelou's autobiographies wonder what she "left out" and are unsure about how to respond to the events Angelou describes. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism force white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography".
Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener insisted that Angelou's book provides a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya face and how a community helps these children succeed as Angelou did. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He found the book a "highly effective" tool for providing real-life examples of thesepsychological concepts.
Angelou is one of the most honored writers of her generation. She has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors include a National Book Award nomination for I know Why The Caged Bird Sing, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. In 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Bantam Books, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List. In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She has served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. Musician Ben Harper has honored Angelou with his song "I'll Rise", which includes words from her poem, "And Still I Rise.” he has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees