Maya Angelou A poet, an author, a play-write, an actress, a mother, a civil-rights activists, historian and most important a survivor. Perhaps Maya Angelou, award winning author of many books is one of the most influential African Americans in American history. I believe that she rates at the top of the list of American authors, with Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Voight. I believe through my research and reading of Maya Angelou that she should be among the members of The American Authors Hall of Fame. Maya was born on, April 4th, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson, in St. Louis Missouri.
She was raised in Stamps Arkansas, by her Grandmother Annie Henderson and Her Uncle Willie. Stamps was a rural segregated community. However, it was tight knit between the African Americans. Maya grew up during a very difficult time period in American history. They were just recovering from the Great Depression, and learning how to deal with different races of people. Maya knew this and made it clear in her writing. “It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life.
It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of each other. A pyramid of flesh with the whit folks on the bottom, . . . and then the Negro’s.” (Angelou Caged Bird 153) “If growing up was painful for the Southern Black Girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” (Angelou, Caged Bird)
Grandma Henderson was a very religious person, and a key factor in Maya’s upbringing. as with the rest of the people of Stamps. Maya and her brother Baily were punished as necessary. She kept Baily and Maya out of trouble and on the right track. “A devout woman Grandmother Henderson led her family in prayer each day at 4:00am.” (Aging and Human Development 181) When Maya was about six, she and Baily moved to St. Louis to live with her mother, and her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.
While staying in St. Louis, she was raped by Mr. Freeman. Afterwards, Mr. Freeman was killed. Maya was certain that her voice had the power to kill, after all, she was the one that told on him, so Maya became mute for the next two years. After returning to Stamps, a woman by the name of Bertha Flowers brought Maya out of her mute. “Mrs. Flowers she had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest of weather… she acted just as refined as the white folks.” (Angelou, Caged Bird 76-78) Mrs. Flowers brought the works of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and many others to Maya.
Mrs. Flowers made her read and recite the verses. Maya was about 11, Grandma Baxter moved her and Baily to San Francisco, California to escape to racial fights in the south. Maya was just as mystified with her mother now as when she first meets her in St. Louis. Maya would go to see her father every so often, until one summer he asked Maya to live with him for the summer. Maya’s father often took trips to Mexico on the weekend. Maya went with him on one, just to find herself driving her drunken father home. When Maya returned home, she got into an awful fight with her father’s girlfriend. Maya then ran away, became homeless, and lived in a junkyard. One year after Maya became homeless, she returned home with her mother.
Maya attended secondary school, and found herself a job being the first black conductorette on the San Francisco street cars. This was a great accomplishment in Maya’s mind, she had done something that no one else has ever done. Maya was now about 16 years of age, and curious about sex. She thought that maybe she was lesbian, so to find out, she had sex with a friend, and ended up pregnant. Maya was only 16 years old. She was now the Mother of Guy Johnson. Maya moved to West Africa, and took up the job as a professor at The University of Ghana. Where She enroled Guy, now 17. Maya was now among her people, Blacks. “We were Black Americans in West Africa, where for the first time in our lives the color of our skin was accepted as correct and normal.” (Angelou God’s Children 3).
Maya is now a professor at Wake forest university, in North Carolina. She often gives speeches, reads poems and like to travel in her free time. Maya was brought up during a very difficult time in American history. The post depression era and the beginning of segregation greatly influenced young Maya. She and her family had very few run-ins with whites, and rarely did they associate with them. I feel that being angry about the racism and deprived of the best education, affected her writing.
The International Journal of Aging and Human Development writes about on of Maya’s run-ins “A group of poor white girls came to the store trying to humiliate her grandmother. They called her names and did everything possible to try and humiliate her grandmother… As a young black girl watching this scene, the author related that she was extremely angry as her grandmother stood, prayed, and sang to it all, oblivious to it all.” (Aging and Human Development 181)
There were many contemporaries that influenced Maya Angelou during her life. Such
as Dr. Martin Luther King JR. They both had similar views in civil rights, during the time period that Maya started writing. At the request of Dr. King, Ms. Angelou became the north coordinator of the South Christian Leadership conference. President Gerald Ford also influenced Maya by appointing her to the Bicentennial commission. She also knew, and helped out Malcolm X. During the time period that Maya Angelou began to write, the television was just beginning to surface. This helped Maya and the rest of the world see what was going on in a matter of hours, instead in a matter of days (sometimes even weeks). The automobile is also a very essential tool that was being perfected in Maya’s time.
There is no doubt in my mind or anybody elses mind that during the tome period of the 1930’s to the 1990’s that racial issues were the biggest and most dangerous social issue. As stated above, I believe that the racial issues that Maya encountered during her childhood as well as her adult life, have greatly affected Maya’s writings, and feelings. The time in her life that race did not bother her was when she lived in Ghana, Africa. Here she felt that it didn’t matter if she was black, because everybody else was. I believe that this book is an important piece of Americana for one simple reason.
That reason is that the book tells in detail how difficultly but interesting it was to grow up in the mid 1930’s. Maya grew up in one of the most difficult time periods in American history. I feel that her message from the book is love what you have and know, not what you don’t have and don’t know. I truly learned a lesson from Maya and Her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I have learned to be thankful fro what I have and the time period that I am living in, to enjoy it.
Maya Angelou has touched the live of thousands of people through her books,
speeches, and just her general being. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to have read and of written about her. I hope other people have the chance to read and appreciate Maya, the way the I and others have. Works Cited
Aging and Human Development. 1992 ed. Massachusetts: Lexington 1991
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York, Norton 1970
Angelou, Maya. All God’s Children Need Walking Shoes. NewYork, Norton 1986
Thomas, Alicia..”Maya Angelou; A Given Gift” People Feb. 2001: 12-17
Thurneo, Jones. “A Woman of Dignity.” Times Magazine 27 July 2002: 31-36