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Angelou, Maya (1928 - )
"People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will, but as human being become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of respectability at a commensurate speed."

-- Maya Angelou


Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson) in St. Louis, Missouri, USA) is an African American poet, memoirist, actress and an important figure with the American Civil Rights Movement.

Angelou is known for the autobiographical writings I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993, Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of Morning for Bill Clinton's Presidential inauguration at his request.

Angelou has published many other collections of verse, speaks numerous languages fluently, has traveled abroad to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and has worked as a journalist for foreign publications.

She has received numerous honors from the academy including the Yale University Fellowship. She was also named the Rockefeller Foundation Scholar in Italy. Angelou has taught at the University of Ghana and the University of Kansas and holds a lifetime chair as the Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Additional honors include the Woman of the Year Award and a nomination for the Tony Awards.

Background
In her early twenties she was given the name Maya Angelou after her debut performance as a dancer at the Purple Onion cabaret. Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a naval dietician, and her mother was Vivian Baxter. She has one sibling, a brother named Bailey after their father. When she was about three years old, their parents divorced and the children were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.

Angelou claims that her grandmother, whom she called "Momma, had a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched." Growing up in Stamps, Angelou learned what it was like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries were set by whites. She learned what it meant to have to wear old hand me downs from a white woman. And she also learned the humiliation of being refused treatment by a white dentist. As a child she always dreamed of waking to find her "nappy black hair" metamorphosed to a long blond bob because she felt life was better for a white girl than for a black girl. Despite the odds, her grandmother instilled pride in Angelou with religion as an important element in their home.

After five years of being apart from their mother the children were sent back to Saint Louis to be with her. This move eventually took a turn for the worst when Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend. The devastating act of violence committed against her caused her be silenced to everyone except her brother for nearly five years. She was sent back to Stamps because no one could handle the grim state Angelou was in.

With the constant help of a woman named Mrs. Flowers, Angelou began to evolve into the young girl who had possessed the pride and confidence she once had. Again in 1940, she and her brother were sent to San Francisco to live with their mother. Life with her mother was in constant disorder; it soon became too much for her so her father came and took her to live with him and his girlfriend in their rundown trailer. Finding that life with him was no better, she ended up living in a graveyard of wrecked cars that mainly housed homeless children.

It took her a month to get back home to her mother. Angelou's dysfunctional childhood spent moving back and forth between her mother and grandmother caused her to struggle with maturity. She became determined to prove she was a woman and began to rush toward maturity. Angelou soon found herself pregnant, and at the age of sixteen she delivered her son, Guy.

Works

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Angelou's first work of literature, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiography. Angelou's sometimes disruptive life inspired her to write this book. It reflects the essence of her struggle to overcome the restrictions that were placed upon her in a hostile environment. Angelou wrote with a twist of lyrical imagery along with a touch of realism. The title of this book is taken from the poem "Sympathy" by the great black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The work displays an impulse towards transcendence.

Gather Together in My Name
Her second book, Gather Together in My Name, centers on Angelou and her brother's move away from their grandmother. This transition takes place from her later teen years through her mid twenties, focusing on her experiences as a mother, a Creole cook, a madam, a tap dancer, a prostitute and a chauffeurette. Also in the novel, Angelou writes about an affair with a customer at a restaurant and her brief experience with drugs.

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas
Angelou's third novel, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, covers about five years of her life from the ages of twenty-two to twenty-seven. During this period she was married to Tosh Angelos, a white man and an ex-sailor, who she shows to be intelligent, kind, and reliable. He was a temporary source of stability for herself and her son, but after three years of marriage they fell out of love. She divorced him and returned to her career as a dancer. Shortly afterwards she joined the European touring production of Porgy and Bess. She devotes over half the book to describing the tour. She talks about how the guilt over her neglect of her son nearly drove her to suicide, but her love of life, motherhood, and dancing sent her running home.

The Heart of a Woman
The title of her fourth novel, The Heart of a Woman, comes from a poem that was written during the Harlem Renaissance by the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. Once again, in this book, Angelou is in search of her identity and place. The book is told from a perspective that matches that of her first novel and has a similar psychological depth. Narrating her thirties, Angelou reflects on her son Guy, the civil rights movement, marriage, and her own writing. During this period, she became more committed to her writing and was inspired by her friend, John Killens, a distinguished social activist author. Also, during that time she made a commitment to promote black civil rights and examine the nature of racial oppression, racial progress and racial integration.

All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
Angelou's fifth autobiography, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, shows her to have developed an even greater sense of connection with her African past. She dedicates this book to Julian Mayfield and Malcolm X, who both were passionately and earnestly in search of their symbolic home. After her visit to Ghana, she was swept into adoration for the country and adopted it as her homeland.

 
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