Maya Angelou is a black female who had a tragic childhood, but fought through it and ended up extremely influential, prestigious, and successful. She spent her childhood being tossed back and forth between California and Alabama with her older brother. During her middle years she had to learn how to grow up fast and make a living on her own. American poet/writer Maya Angelou pulled through a difficult life to write beautiful poetry and stories to inspire and encourage her readers.
On April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the “daughter of Bailey and Vivian [Baxter] Johnson” (Maya). She had only one older brother, Bailey, named after his father. Her mother, “Vivian Baxter Johnson, worked variously as a card dealer, boarding house proprietor, and registered nurse” (Angelou). Her mother had three husbands but many lovers. Angelou’s father was Bailey Johnson, “a doorman and a naval dietician” (Angelou). After she was born, she and her family moved to Long Beach, California. It was there that her parents’ marriage ended in a divorce. “When she was three, her father put Maya and her four year old brother on a train from California to Stamps, Arkansas” (American 2). They went to live with Annie Henderson, their grandmother. “On the train they had tags around their wrists with notes ‘To Whom it May Concern’ explaining their names and their destination” (American 3).
Maya’s child hood was rough without her parents and she began to resent them. Her mother tried to have a relationship with her but she was not always very successful. One Christmas, “Maya destroy[ed] a blond-haired doll her mother had sent her but preserves the other gift…” (American 3). Not having a mother around was only one of the hardships she faced. Her grandmother owned a general store, but she was a black woman in a racist area. Angelou witnessed “economic hardship, murderous hate, and ingrained denigration” (Maya). Maya Angelou’s early years were not very happy, but they set the stage for the rest of her life.
During Maya Angelou’s middle years she went back and forth from her mother and grandmother a lot. Tragically, “at the age of eight, Angelou was raped” (Maya). She had gone to visit her mother a little while after the divorce. “Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After the crime was discovered, Maya was forced to testify” (Angelou). Only days after the trial, the man who committed the crime “was found beaten to death in an alley”(Angelou). Maya began to believe that it was her fault that the man was killed so she stopped talking. The experience influenced many of her stories and poems later in her life.
Angelou attended various “public schools in Arkansas and California” (Maya). Once Angelou began to speak again, she became actively associated in her education. “Maya was able to graduate with top honors from Lafayette County Training School in Stamps” (American 4). She then moved back to San Francisco with her mother. “She graduated from George Washington High School” (American 4). The high school was mostly white, but she made it through. “While still in high school she received a scholarship to study dance and theater at the California Labor School” (American 4). However, Angelou did not attend the school because she pregnant. She was very insecure about her body, “she thought that her large bones, small breasts, and deep voice indicate that she is a lesbian” (American 4). She then tried to make herself feel better by sleeping with a boy in the neighborhood. “Maya is a single young mother, yet still herself a child, a mother afraid she might harm her baby” (American 4). Angelou’s mother constantly sent her back and forth between California and Arkansas as they both tried to figure out what was best for the child. Angelou’s middle years were difficult, but would also influence her later writing.
Maya Angelou’s adult life came very early for her as she experienced the trials of a young, unemployed, single, teenage mother. She and her child were “living in San Francisco with her mother and her [mothers] new husband” (American 4). Angelou was only 17, her son was still an infant, so she needed to find a job. She tried being “a busgirl and a cook at a Creole restaurant” (American 5). While working there, she thought she found the man of her dreams. But the dream quickly came to an end when the man’s girlfriend returned from a long term trip. Angelou quickly moved on the next job hoping to make some money. “She became a nightclub waitress and met two lesbians, Johnnie Mae and Beatrice” (American 5). She quickly discovered that they were alcoholic prostitutes. “Maya convinces them to turn their house into a whorehouse” (American 5). Her brother, Bailey, advises her to quit, insisting that he will always be there for her. Angelou stays in California to raise her child but travels often. As a curious young mother trying to get by, waiting for the next chapter in life.
In the early 1950’s, Angelou got married for the first time to a man named Tosh Angelos. She met him “when she was working as a salesgirl in a record store” (American 6). Tosh was a sailor who loved jazz, “but she was also bothered by what she senses to be the disapproval from others because of the interracial marriage” (American 6). Therefore, the marriage only lasted about three years. Soon after, Angelou became a dancer and a singer. “She performed in the popular west Indian calypso style at The Purple Onion” (Angelou). Angelou stopped traveling as much in 1960, when she realized that she could be a part of something huge.
One Sunday morning, Angelou attended service at a Harlem church. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching, it then inspired her. “She decided to produce a play and raise money for King’s Southern Leadership Conference” (Angelou). In 1961, Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt and remarried. “In 1963, after her marriage ended, she moved to Accra to be with her son” (Angelou). In 1966 she went back to California to continue acting, singing, and writing. She published her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970” (Angelou). Another highlight of her adult life was when she gave the presidential inauguration in 1993. Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations that she faced became an influence to many.
“Angelou is most familiar to her international audience for her series of auto biographies” (American 1). She had five major autobiographies that reflected upon her childhood, middle years, and adult life. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Women, and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (American 2). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1970, it quickly became popular and got a nomination for the National Book Award. “It covers her childhood and adolescence until the birth of her son, when she was 17” (Angelou).
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