Then and Now: The Leaders of Black History; Maya Angelou

Marguerite Johnson was born in St Louis, Missouri in the late 1920’s. Following the separation of her parents, she and her brother were sent to Arkansas to live with their grandmother. During this time racism was rampant and young Marguerite dealt with severe mistreatment from prejudiced groups in the south.

At just seven years old, Johnson was raped by the boyfriend of her other grandmother. Her uncles murdered the perpetrator after she told them what had happened. Due to all of her trauma, Johnson became mute and isolated, believing that her voice was the cause of her rapist’s death. She coped by reading and learned to love the world of literature and words.

Johnson and her brother returned to their mother, who had relocated in Oakland, California. This was not before, however, one of her school teachers by the name of Mrs. Flowers encouraged her to speak again after being introduced to writers like Charles Dickens, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and many more. With this newfound passion for education, Johnson earned her high school diploma, gave birth to a baby boy by the name of Guy, and began a career as the first ever black woman street car conductor in the great city of San Francisco. She also sang and danced in nightclubs to calypso music, and during this time adopted the stage name Maya Angelou.

After years of touring with operas, learning languages and traveling, and performing on Broadway, Angelou settled in New York and decided to focus on her writing. She became a highly respected member of the Harlem Writers Guild and worked closely with fellow black authors, as well as secured a position as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Office. Angelou became immersed in civil rights advocation and even grew a relationship with the legendary activist Malcolm X and collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr.

Following this period, fueled by anger and passion due to witnessing constant injustices, Angelou created documentaries about African American culture and their roots in jazz and soulful music. Not only that, but arguably the pinnacle of her career took place around this time. The writer released a hard-hitting, controversial, painful, and beautiful work of words: her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” This catapulted Angelou into fame, but refusing to remain complacent, she continued to create poetry and even wrote television scripts and movie soundtracks.

Towards the end of her career, Angelou took up acting and was nominated for a Tony award for her role in the play “Look Away.” She also made appearances in other critically acclaimed works such as “Poetic Justice” and “Roots.” Furthermore, the creative genius also received three Grammys for her spoken word albums titled “On the Pulse of Morning”, “Phenomenal woman”, and “A Song Flung Up To Heaven.” After this period, Angelou began teaching at Wake Forest University. She instructed on poetry, politics, and African American culture.

Beyond a list of many other awards, Angelou earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom just a few years before her passing in 2014. Of course, she didn’t stop writing even in her old age, and published the seventh part of her autobiography “Mom & Me & Mom” in 2013, which details her relationship with her mother Vivian.

Angelou died at the age of 85, during the process of writing yet another book about her respected work with global icons. A private memorial was held at Wake Forest in her honor, and many came to speak on her behalf, including close friends such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and her own son Guy. There were also two public remembrance services at churches where Angelou has attended for years. The world was left with a great loss and her impact on society was not forgotten. In fact, just days after her passing, the book that started it all, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” skyrocketed to first on the bestseller’s list.

Maya Angelou was a treasure to this world. She gave and continues to give inspiration and courage to aspiring writers and artists. It is no wonder her poetry is so heavily emphasized in schools today. A literary genius and representative of black excellence, Angelou reminds young people that they are not confined to the circumstances of which they were born. She was living, breathing proof that those circumstances are just another reason to overcome.

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