This past month, the world was graced with the name and words of Amanda Gorman at both the presidential inauguration of Biden as well as the Super Bowl. Her poetry at the inauguration called for healing, “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be.” And at the Super Bowl she celebrated community leaders who went above and beyond during this pandemic, “They’ve taken the lead, exceeding all expectations and limitations, uplifting their communities and neighbors as leaders, healers and educators.” When I think about Amanda Gorman and the voice she lends to our cultural trauma, I can’t help but think about Maya Angelou, and the path she paved for people like Gorman.
We are all familiar with Angelou, being a voice that cannot be reckoned with. Her inspirational poetry, words, and performances have left their mark on the literary and entertainment industry alike. And while we all know her to be outspoken in her words and activism, few know her history or the trauma she endured as a child that quite literally took her words and put her into a state of silence.
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928. Her parents divorced while she was a small child, and she was sent away with her brother Bailey Junior to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. When Angelou was seven, she was on a family trip visiting her mother in St. Louis. On this trip she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This moment was pinnacle for Angelou as she used her voice for the first time to speak out against injustice. She told her family what had occurred, which resulted in the man being arrested, tried, released, and later murdered. It was from this point that Angelou became a mute.
In an interview with Angelou she recalled this memory stating, “I was a volunteer mute. I had a voice, but I refused to use it. When I heard about his murder, I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak. After a while, I no longer knew why I didn’t speak. I simply didn’t speak.”
The complexity and power of this moment, at such a young age had the potential to silence Angelou for her life. In those years as a mute, she became an avid reader. A friend of her grandmother’s recognized that she had a love for poetry. It was ultimately this woman who convinced Angelou to speak. She convinced young Maya that poetry in its fullest form, is meant to be spoken aloud.
Angelou eventually renewed her relationship with her mother, moving with her across the country to San Francisco. It was here in California that Angelou’s career really took off. She was a woman of many talents, she worked as a dancer, waitress, and actress. Her voice wasn’t just beautiful speaking words, but also singing them, as she recorded an album. She appeared on Broadway and even went on a touring production overseas to Europe.
In 1961, Angelou took a break from the entertainment industry. She was introduced to the teachings of Martin Luther King, working as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She later followed a South African freedom fighter to Cairo where she became a journalist. Maya was not in her fight alone. She included her son on a trip to Ghana where she met Malcom X. In 1965, Angelou returned to the United States to work more closely with Malcom X.
Shortly after the deaths of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. a friend of Angelou’s had persuaded her to write an autobiography. It became a national bestseller, and six more volumes would come of her writing over the next decade. After the success of her penship she began to publish poetry, returning to the passion that allowed her to speak all those years ago. Angelou’s poetry was filled with social justice issues that we face yet still today. Her words were known to address the white oppression and mistreatment of people of color. While her words were harsh, they remained hopeful and optimistic for a better tomorrow. In one of her most famous poems, Still I Rise, she writes:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Angelou went on to become a professor in 1982, at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, teaching American Studies. It was here that Angelou found a new passion in teaching. She taught a variety of classes including: “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance,” “Race, Politics and Literature,” “African Culture and Impact on US,” “Race in the Southern Experience,” and “Shakespeare and the Human Condition.” Angelou’s presence and impact on the school was so influential that in 2002, the Wake Forest School of Medicine created the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity. Their mission was to study racial and ethnic disparities in health care and health outcomes. She continued to teach at Wake Forest until 2011, when she had to step down due to declining health conditions.
Angelou’s words are just as relevant today as they were when she first spoke them. She encouraged her students to take positions on issues, to not remain compliant or silent. In an interview from Wake Forest Magazine she stated, “You can say anything (you want). The only thing is to defend it… and not be in love with any position, but to be in love with the search for truth.”
Angelou’s influence also reached political leaders. She was asked to read one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She became the first African American and first female poet to participate in such a performance. Nelson Mandela read one of her poems at his own inauguration in 1994. And more recently she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2010.
Angelou passed away in 2014 at the age of 86. While she will forever be missed, her presence and impact will not be forgotten.
5 Crowning Achievements of Maya Angelou. (2021, January 29). Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.biography.com/news/maya-angelou-achievements
Anirudh. (2020, November 07). 10 Most Famous Poems by Maya Angelou. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://learnodo-newtonic.com/maya-angelou-famous-poems
Maya Angelou: Teacher. (2017, June 25). Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://mayaangelou.wfu.edu/story/
Obituary: Maya Angelou. (2014, May 28). Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-23514894