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“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” (Angelou, via brainyquote.com). Maya Angelou is a renowned 20th century author, and her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was a bestseller in the 1970’s. Since then, she has become an actress, director, producer, educator and civil rights activist. Maya defied all odds as an African-American woman by being successful in times of racial and gender inequality.
Her work for the greater good of the world has left a permanent mark on society. Maya Angelou came from a problematic youth, but triumphed to become an influential leader around the world. Maya’s childhood consisted of years of turmoil that only made her stronger in her adult life. Maya Angelou, birth name Marguerite Annie Johnson, was born on April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri (Angelou). Her parents divorced when she was young, so she and her older brother were sent to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother.
Stamps was a segregated city, and Maya experienced racial discrimination at her young age (Academy of Achievement). Maya escaped the pain of prejudices and family problems in Stamps by reading the works of William Shakespeare, Paul Lawrence, Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson; they were all successful authors who would influence Angelou’s career later in life (Edublogs). At the age of eight, Maya and her brother moved back to Missouri with their mother, and Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
The man was eventually killed by Maya’s uncles when they discovered what had happened. Maya, due to her fear and guilt of the incident, went mute for over five years, and was sent back to live with her grandmother. While in Stamps, she befriended a teacher named Mrs. Flowers who helped her come out of her shell.
When talking about Mrs. Flowers, Maya stated, “I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerites Johnson…” (Edublogs). She finally began to speak again at the age of thirteen, when she moved to San Francisco with her mother and brother (Academy of Achievement). Even with a new start, Maya’s life continued on a bumpy path as she entered her teens. San Francisco was a city of opportunities for Maya; she received a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School at the age of fourteen. She then dropped out of school to become San Francisco’s first African American female cab conductor.
Maya eventually returned to high school, and got pregnant during her senior year. Her son, Guy, was born weeks before Maya’s graduation. At the age of 16, she decided to leave home and live as a single mom. She worked many jobs, including waitressing and cooking, but her love for the arts stayed as an unfulfilled dream (Global Renaissance Woman – Biography). Maya’s hurdles over childhood adversity made her the strong, successful woman that she is today. Maya’s adult life was full of faults and ultimate successes. She was married a total of three times, and each marriage ended in divorce. Her last name of Angelou came from her first husband, Greek sailor Anastasios Angelopulos; she used Angelou as a stage last name when she was nightclub singer. Although the marriage did not last, Maya’s singing career had a promising run; she toured Europe and recorded her first album in the 1950’s. Maya did not attend college, but writing songs as a performer expanded her interest in writing. She spent many years abroad with her second husband, South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, and wrote for newspapers around the world, especially in Egypt and other African countries.
Maya was especially interested in working with Malcolm X towards Civil Rights in America. She returned to the U.S. in 1964 with intentions to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated shortly after Maya’s arrival, and his plan was never completed. The death of her good friend left Maya devastated, and she found comfort in writing (Academy of Achievement). She began working on the novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which would catapult her to fame within in a matter of months of its publishing. Being a bestselling author was only the beginning for Maya Angelou. She has published numerous works in her career, all successful: autobiographies, essays, cook books, poetry books, plays, movie scripts, and television scripts alike (Global Renaissance Woman – Books).
Maya has also received many prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Lincoln Medal, and most recently, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from President Barack Obama. She has been a Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina for over 3 decades (Global Renaissance Woman – Biography). Her works have motivated people around the world, including celebrities such as former President Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, to believe in themselves and persevere (Influences on World Literature). Maya’s career has stretched for over half of a century, and will continue to influence the world in literature and humanity. Also, her actions for racial and gender rights made a tremendous impact on equality in the United States and Africa. Maya Angelou is a leader because of her ambition to succeed and her influence on others. Maya Angelou’s quote about leaving an impact perfectly portrays her existence in history; it is not just about a specific moment, but what emotions and actions result from it.
Maya overcame many adversities to gain the status she currently holds in society. Her writings and teachings have impacted generations of people around the world, including me, and will continue to for years to come. I have learned that no matter where you begin, and no matter what obstacles obstruct your path, there is always a way to survive and prosper.
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