By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
Poet, author and civil rights activist, Dr. Maya Angelou, was truly a ‘phenomenal woman.’ She rose to fame after her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of a series of seven autobiographies. Ten years later, it was adapted into a movie. The book would later make a path for her to become the first female inaugural poet.
But the path was almost blocked at an early age. Angelou was born as Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Three years later her parents divorced. She and her brother went to live with her grandmother and returned home to her mother for a short period of time. During that time, she was molested by her mother’s boyfriend. After he was jailed and then released the next day. He was found dead a few days later. Startled at the thought that her voice –her words – could end a man’s life, 7-year-old Marguerite stopped talking for six years because she didn’t want to kill anyone else. This irritated and bothered most people, but her grandmother – who she was back to live with at age 13 – was understanding.
A woman she knew as Ms. Flowers took her to a local library and told her to read a certain section of books. The young girl took on the challenge and began to replace her voice with reading. Knowing how Marguerite felt about poetry, Flowers challenged the young girl that she would never truly love poetry until she could speak it. The woman persisted for six months. Young Marguerite read a poem in private, seeing no harm in it, she began to speak again.
As a young lady, Angelou had several jobs in various industries – some typical, others perhaps risqué. In her 20’s, she worked as a performer. In 1952, she decided to start using a professional name and came up with Maya Angelou. She was a professional dancer in a nightclub, she also performed in Porgy and Bess and The Blacks. She recorded one album, Miss Calypso, released by Liberty Records in 1956. She also worked as a correspondent in Africa.
In the 1950s and ’60s, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement. She and an African American fiction novelist John Oliver Killens organized the historic Cabaret for Freedom, benefiting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She later became a coordinator for the northern region. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
She became an outspoken voice for African Americans and women through her written work and her many speeches.
After Bill Clinton was elected as the president of the United States in 1992, he decided he wanted Angelou to recite poetry during his inauguration.
“I wanted a poem …” he said. “Once I made the decision, I didn’t really think about anybody else.”
Clinton, who was born about 25 miles from the small town where Angelou was raised, felt a connection to her through their childhood experiences and her written work – namely I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
“I was asked would I consider writing a poem for President Clinton’s inauguration, and I said yes.” Angelou said during American Masters. “And then I started to pray and ask everybody, ‘Little children, what do you think?’”
From that point until she performed, wherever she went she was constantly asked how the poem was going.
During the inauguration, held Jan. 20, 1993, Angelou recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning. The poem used nature and the passing of time to speak optimistically to all of America about the need and ability for humans to continuously change and push toward a better future.
“The minute she started talking, you could just feel the change rolling across the crowd, and everybody started listening,” Clinton reflected.
That day, she became the first female, and first African American to recite a poem during the inauguration. She would later receive a Best Spoken Word Grammy Award for her recording of the poem.
Angelou went on to receive numerous honors. She earned three Grammys for her spoken word albums. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie and a Tony Award for her performance in the 1973 play Look Away. Moreover, many of her poems continue to be recited, such as Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise.
She received the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and 56 doctorates.
Angelou died May 28, 2014. The next year, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp, which included a quote that was mistaken as hers.
Most recently, Angelou became was the first women to be illustrated on the reverse side of the quarter in a series of quarters reflecting the American women. She was the first Black woman to be portrayed as herself on a quarter. The coins were released in January 2022.
Sources: National Women’s History Museum, Library of Congress, MayaAngelou.com and On Point with Armstrong Williams