Ms Angelou’s grandmother was religious, strict and undemonstrative. She loved her grandmother but the whippings she would receive for innocuous actions, such as using the term “by the way” (1) in conversation, a blasphemy to her grandmother as “Jesus was the only way” (1), left her conflicted.
In 1935 the siblings returned to their mother in St. Louis. When Ms Angelou was nearly 8 she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and both children returned to their grandmother. After a court case the rapist was sentenced to one year in prison but only served one day. The day after his release, the police informed her maternal grandmother that he had been found kicked to death. This experience caused Ms Angelou profound trauma and she believed “my voice had actually killed him” (1); for a while she chose to become mute, only occasionally speaking to her brother.
There was overt and extensive racism where Ms Angelou grew up; “they (the Ku Klux Klan) didn’t wear sheets…they had such power” (1). Ms Angelou stood up to them, which led her family to fear for her and suggest she should leave town.
In 1941 she and her brother moved back to live with her mother who was living in San Francisco, California. Ms Angelou won a scholarship to study dance and drama at the California Labor School, whilst attending the George Washington School.
In 1942 a teacher, Bertha Flowers, introduced Ms Angelou to self-expression through poetry and she began to externalize and vocalize her trauma. Previously she would communicate by writing on a blackboard or a tablet carried in her belt. She would also read avidly, being introduced to Shakespeare at this time, about whom she “could not believe he wasn’t black” (1) as his words spoke to her. Ms Angelou attributes this period to creating strong memory paths within her that allows her to recall vividly her experiences and ideas, and to articulate them effectively.
When aged 15 Ms Angelou decided to get a job with the cable-car company as a Conductor. She was ahead in her educational studies and her mother supported her decision. At first she could not even get an application form because of her colour, and her anger at this injustice inspired her first civil rights action. Her mother encouraged her fight for the job; it took a month of sitting outside the office but she succeeded and became the first Black female Conductor in San Francisco.
Ms Angelou returned to High School but became pregnant at aged 17, giving birth weeks after successfully graduating. She was not with the father and was supported by her mother, whom she told only three weeks before she gave birth to her son Guy. In order to support her family Ms Angelou became a sex worker aged 18 for a short period of time, as well as a waitress, a cook, a Madame, and continued to audition for acting and dancing roles. She was exposed to illegal narcotics but never partook herself through the intervention of an addicted boyfriend (although she was not aware of this at first) who exposed her to the reality of addiction and scared her off all drugs. For this, she has always been “thankful to him”(1).
In 1949 Ms Angelou married Anastosios Angelopoulos and adopted the surname ‘Angelou’ as a stage name. The marriage failed in 1952 but the name remained. That year Ms Angelou was awarded a scholarship to study dance with Pearl Primus, and by 1954/55 she had toured Europe in a production of Porgy & Bess. She continued writing, producing poems, dramas and lyrics.
By the late 1950s writing had become where her heart lay, and Ms Angelou moved to Harlem, New York, to join the Harlem Writers Guild, closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement. She would act and write in productions such as Cabaret for Freedom, raising funds for the movement.
Ms Angelou fell in love with Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist, and they moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she edited the English journal The Arab Observer. Soon afterwards she and Guy moved to Ghana, where she worked as Instructor and Administrator for the University of Ghana’s School of Music & Drama and wrote for various media productions.
During her travels, Ms Angelou became fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fanti (a West African dialect). In 1964 she returned to the United States to develop a friendship she had begun with Malcolm X and work for the Organisation of African American Unity. The assassination of Malcolm X prevented the organisation’s development. Ms Angelou continued her activism, working in television production and serving as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr. It was his assassination, on her birthday in 1968, that was the catalyst for writing her first book, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. This was a book she felt “sucker-punched” (1) into writing; throughout her writing career she would defy those who told her she could not do something. A publisher had told her she would not be able to write an autobiography that would be perceived as high literature, after a dinner party at which Activist James Baldwin and writer Judy Pfeiffer, together with Ms Pfeiffer’s husband, had suggested she might be capable of doing so. As they expected, Ms Angelou rose to the challenge and proved them wrong.
Ms Angelou quickly developed a strong reputation as a writer and was in demand as a lecturer and teacher state and worldwide. In 1971 she married Paul du Feu but this relationship ended in 1980. Her 1972 screenplay ‘Georgia Georgia’ (which she also scored) was the first filmed script written by a Black woman and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1973 she received Tony nomination for her Broadway acting debut in ‘Look Away’ and her work in 1977’s landmark TV series ‘Roots’ led to an Emmy nomination.
In 1981 Ms Angelou was appointed Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a position she holds to date, and over the years she has received over 30 honorary doctorates. On 20th January 1993 she wrote and delivered the inaugural poem for President Clinton; ‘On The Pulse Of The Morning’ won a Grammy and has since been translated into over 40 languages. She has directed many documentaries and made her fictional directoral debut in 1996 with ‘Down in the Delta’, and she continues to act in many dramas. In 2000 she was honoured with the Presidential Medal of the Arts, in 2006 received the Mother Theresa award, and in 2008 she was awarded Ford’s Theatre’s Lincolns Medal and became the first recipient of the Hope for Peace and Justice Voice of Peace award..
Ms Angelou is a polymath but at her heart she is “A writer… I identify myself to myself as a writer” (1). She has received awards and honorary degrees from all over the world. She is an icon who continues to voice the stories and to fight for the rights of all, as “it’s up to each one of us to make it better. Every one of us. We deserve our future.” (2)
Selected Works (over 30 publications to date):
Just Give Me a Cool Drink Of Water Fore I Diiie (1971) – Pulitzer Prize nomination
Gather Together In My Name (1974)
The Heart of a Woman (1977)
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1994)
A Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002)
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, M. Angelou (1969)
FOTW No. 25 by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/234694839904110/doc/556073727766218/
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson