Maya Angelou: Voice of Our Time

UPDATED: September 7, 2011
PUBLISHED: September 7, 2011

Editor’s note: Maya Angelou died today, May 28, 2014, at the age of 86. In this archive feature from SUCCESS magazine, we celebrate the life and impact she had.

“I had to trust life, since I was young enough to believe that life loved the person who dared to live it.” That is how Maya Angelou recalls herself at 30, yet the statement holds true today. Angelou is alternately described as a “voice of our time” or a “legend” or any number of glowing designations, but the foundation for those accolades has been her ability to be supremely engaged, endowed with a power to participate in her life in ways that can only be called courageous.

She is a formidable icon, 6 feet tall, with a speaking voice cadenced like an epic poem and a presence that evokes an aging African warrior queen. She is the woman who rarely took a pass, the one who forged ahead, challenged herself and changed the world in small and large ways for more than 80 years.

It is hard to grasp how the great-granddaughter of a slave who was born poor in 1928 St. Louis managed to overcome circumstances and lead such a rich and triumphant life. Born Marguerite Ann Johnson (she changed her name decades later when she was a singer), she was only 3 when her parents split up, and she and her brother, Bailey, were shipped off to her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Ark. Those were the days of picking cotton and colored-only schools and occasional lynchings, but the children managed to thrive, reading books voraciously while being nurtured by a grandmother who ran a relatively successful general store.

But life for young Angelou would change within a few short years. After moving back to St. Louis with her mother, 8-year-old Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. The girl confided what happened to her brother, who told the family. Mr. Freeman was arrested but spent only a day in jail; upon his release he was kicked to death, presumably by Angelou’s uncles. When the child learned that Mr. Freeman had been murdered, she had a revelation that she herself was the instrument of his death. She reasoned that her voice had killed him; had she not told of the crime, he might still be alive. She was resolutely mute for the next five years.

Why the Caged Bird Sings

Angelou’s early life is chronicled in her most famous book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Following that initial (and critically well-received) book, Angelou wrote five more autobiographies, all detailing her varied careers as a dancer, singer, poet, actress, teacher, activist. There were plays, too, and poetry—some 30 titles in all. Throughout her work, themes of individual power resonate, with an emphasis on “equal pay, equal respect, equal responsibility for everyone.” She emerged as a role model for resilience and fierce self-respect, for candor, hard work and self-reliance.

Angelou attributes much of her ability to rise to the occasion to the people who told her it was possible—and that she could prevail.

After young Angelou was molested, she and her brother returned to live with their grandmother in Stamps.

“I was loved tremendously by my grandmother—my father’s mother—she raised me,” Angelou says. “My grandmother used to braid my hair the way old black ladies still braid girls’ hair. And my hair was big and very, very curly; she had her work cut out for her. She would braid my hair and she would say, ‘Sister, I don’t care what these people say about you must be a moron, you must be an idiot because you can’t talk. Sister, Momma don’t care. Momma know when you and the good Lord get ready, you are going to be a teacher, and you are going to teach all over this world.’ And at first I used to think, ‘this poor ignorant woman’ and then I thought, ‘well, maybe…’ ” Angelou pauses and laughs. “ ‘Maybe she sees something.’ ”

It was that kind of care and love that Angelou eventually received from her glamorous mother, Vivian. Although Angelou undoubtedly felt abandoned in her early years, the relationship came full circle a few years later when she and her brother went to live with their mother in San Francisco. Vivian had married a successful but grounded man, Daddy Clidell, who owned apartment buildings and pool halls, and whom Angelou describes as “a man of honor.” Vivian had come into her own as well and became an unwavering supporter of her daughter.

“When I was about 22, my mother said to me, ‘You know, baby, I think you are the greatest woman I have ever met.’ And my mother owned hotels and diamond rings and things that seemed in another world from where I had grown up. And she said, ‘You are very intelligent and very kind—and those qualities don’t always go together. You don’t look down on anybody.’ And she said, ‘You are going to be somebody.’ Those are the ways one is released, one is liberated into living and living with some esteem and some certitude that one is deserving of better treatment, and good treatment, and is not deserving of being miscalled and mishandled and misused.”

‘Go Get It’

This powerful sense of self helped Angelou every step of the way. There were other mentors, too, including a teacher and family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who encouraged her to speak again and introduced her to a world of books. And a brother, who may have helped her the most at the beginning.

“My brother, Bailey, was smaller than I. He was two years older but took after my mother’s people who were very short, and I took after my father’s people who were tall. My grandmother was over 6 foot, and I am 6 foot. My family came closest to making a genius when they made Bailey. Bailey loved me as well, and Bailey told me, ‘Don’t mind these people that they laugh at you and call you dummy. You are very, very intelligent. You are smarter than any of them. You are not as smart as I am.’ And he was definitely right, so I did not question that. In fact, he encouraged me to read. I don’t know how he managed this, but we left Arkansas—I was 13, he was 15—and we went to San Francisco to my mother’s. Within two months, Bailey had found Philip Wiley, Thomas Wolfe, Aldous Huxley—we had read every book in the black school in Stamps—and [in San Francisco] he brought these books to me—modern writers.

“Bailey was brilliant. By the time he was 20 he was on drugs, so he never lived up to what he had. I always commend and compliment him for being one of the great mentors of my life.”

Aside from her mentors’ encouragement, Angelou also was driven toward growth and achievement. That and a basic demand for justice informed many of her career choices, starting with one she recalls from her teenage years.

After an extended summer visit with her father, Angelou returned to her mother’s after school had already started. Because she was ahead of students her age, her mother said she could skip a semester if she got a job. “So I thought ‘OK, I want to be a streetcar conductor.’ I had seen women in the streetcars in their uniforms and moneychangers and caps with bibs, and I hadn’t noticed that they were all white. And I went down to apply for the job, and no one would even give me an application. I went then to my mother, and she said, ‘Do you know why?’ And I said, ‘Yes, because I’m a Negro.’ And she said, ‘Do you want the job?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Go get it.’ ”

Life on Her Terms

Angelou’s mother told her to take a good book (“I was reading the Russian writers and loving it and being Russian almost and being dramatic”) and to stay at the office until after the secretaries left and return the next day before they arrived.

“Well after about four days I really didn’t want it,” Angelou says. “Because they made snide remarks and it was rude. But I couldn’t go back to Vivian Baxter and tell her that they ran me away. After about two weeks, a man came out of the office and asked me to go in, and I went in. He asked me, ‘Why do you want the job?’ I said, ‘I like the uniform. And I like people.’ He asked me what experience I had. I lied like a fiend. I said I was a chauffeurette for Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps, Ark. That was such a lie. My grandmother had hardly ever even ridden in a car… but I got the job.”

Although most of Angelou’s life has been an unbroken trajectory from one accomplishment to another, her early years as a young mother not long out of high school were exactly the opposite, including a desperate stint as a prostitute. Hitting bottom in the post-World War II years as an unmarried black woman should have been the end of the story, but Angelou managed to beat the odds with her bedrock of familial nurturing and self-esteem.

“I think I know that I deserve better,” she says. “And so I try for better. I’m never so put off that I would ever walk out of a place not having tried the best I could.”

Her life as it unfolds throughout her memoirs charts the ups and downs most of us face, from broken marriages and financial pressure to worries about her much beloved son, Guy, but the backdrop is the extraordinary time in which she lived—and starred in, on occasion.

Angelou succeeded at disciplines in which she had no formal training. She became what she needed to become to earn a living to rear her son. She succeeded to feed her boundless curiosity—and to navigate life on her own terms.

A Renaissance Woman

Angelou’s move to New York in the 1950s, a time of great social change, may have opened the door for her. She worked as a singer, studied dance with Martha Graham and collaborated with Alvin Ailey. She toured Europe with Porgy and Bess. She recorded an album of calypso music in 1957 and appeared in an off-Broadway play and in the film Calypso Heat Wave. Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s and worked for Martin Luther King in the early 1960s. She starred with James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and Roscoe Lee Brown in Jean Genet’s The Blacks.

Later, she worked as an editor in Cairo, Egypt, taught music and drama in Ghana, teamed up with Malcolm X to create the Organization of Afro-American Unity and wrote her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings . She became a poet, a composer, an author and even acted in the iconic television mini-series Roots.

By the 1980s, Angelou was a famous woman and a full-blown celebrity; she was a mentor to people like Oprah Winfrey, who refers to her as “mentor-mother-sister-friend,” and she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. She is a feminist scholar, a civil rights activist and a lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She speaks several languages. Her awards are numerous, including the highest honor given to a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And she’s still writing, having just finished a second cookbook, .

When asked what discipline she values above all others, Angelou demurs. “It’s not fair of me to say because what I would say today I might change by tomorrow—it’s a little like who’s your favorite child, really. I am a poet. Everything I write is not poetry; sometimes its poesy. And sometimes it’s nothing, it’s, ‘A cat sat on a mat that’s that not a rat’—you know, terrible. But I am a poet, and I was a dancer and, once a dancer, maybe always a dancer. For I still see movement and love movement in buildings and in people walking and in forests. I still see movement. I suppose that if I were 83 and 800 pounds, I would still think of myself as a dancer.”

The Journey Continues

Angelou is grateful for all her experiences and accolades but says her greatest source of pride is her son. “My son is a wonder. My son is a blessing, an inspiration. He had a terrible physical accident and at one time was paralyzed from the neck down. He’s fought his way back. And he walks. After being told he would never move. With help, with crutches or a cane, but he walks. And he’s an excellent poet and a good husband, from what my daughter-in-law says. And I know he’s a good father.”

Although Angelou seems to have done it all—and with great success—she still sees room for growth. She gravitates to what may be her most fundamental role: that of the artist, the writer, the woman of words.

“I want to be a great writer,” she says. “I’m on the road but I want to be great. The writer has a charge to take words, the most familiar things in the world—everybody in the world says, ‘Hey, how are you, good afternoon, how’s the children, how’s the wife, how’s the husband and what about your work?’—just words. The writer has to take those words, pull them all together and arrange them so that they can be balled up and thrown against the wall and they’ll bounce.”

It’s hard to pinpoint why or how Angelou became a cultural icon, or when that voice came to resonate with wisdom. It’s as if the early predictions from her grandmother eventually came true: Someday she would “teach all over this world.” And teach she does.

 But Angelou says it best: “I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes; it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all.… The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that, we never grow, we never learn and sure as hell we should never teach.”