Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Maya Angelou

Today I was saddened to hear of Maya Angelou's passing. She was an inspiration to so many people, and was an inspirational and brave author, director, actor, lecturer, poet and activist.

Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than fifty years. She received dozens of awards and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of seventeen, and brought her international recognition and acclaim.

Angelou was active in the Civil Rights movement, and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. She was also the first poet to recite their poem at a presidents inauguration (Bill Clinton's in 1993), since since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. She was respected as a spokesperson of black people and women, and her works have been considered a defence of black culture. Attempts have been made to ban her books from some US libraries due to their explicit content, but her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, most likely by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone ..." She moved back in with her grandmother, where she met a teacher who changed her life, introduced her to reading and helped her speak again. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde. Angelou's second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19 and "depicts a single mother's slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime." Angelou worked as "the front woman/business manager for prostitutes," a restaurant cook, a prostitute and she also danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education,

In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterwards.

Angelou's friend James Baldwinwas instrumental in the publication of her first autobiography.

President Barack Obamapresenting Angelou with thePresidential Medal of Freedom, 2011
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 were able to publicly discuss their personal lives. According to scholar Hilton Als, up to that point, black female writers were marginalised to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters in the literature they wrote. Angelou's autobiographies have also been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in education.
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but "postpones again", and in what has been referred to as "a macabre twist of fate", he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Also in 1968, inspired at a dinner party she attended with Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and his wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced and she was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998. Since the 1990s, Angelou actively participated in the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. 
My thoughts are with her family and friends at this time. RIP Maya Angelou.