Maya Angelou knew why the caged bird sings, because, as a young girl, she was that caged bird. She escaped her cage, however, then sang and soared to amazing heights.
Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her brother gave her the shorter first name, Maya, short for, "Mya Sister," and she later created her surname as a version of her first husband's.
Angelou's parents divorced when she was a toddler. Her mother, Vivian Baxter, was a free spirit, not able to relate to small children, so young Maya and her brother spent most of their early years with their grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou credited these early years, including five years when she was virtually mute, with cementing the unique connections that comprised her poet's brain.
Angelou's most famous work, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," is an account of her first sixteen years, altered somewhat for the sake of narrative clarity. For example, a few characters are composites of several people she encountered.
Momma, as Angelou called her grandmother, owned a successful general store and provided a loving home. Angelou later reminisced, "My grandmother took me to church on Sunday all day long, every Sunday into the night. Then Monday evening was the missionary meeting. Tuesday evening was usher board meeting. Wednesday evening was prayer meeting. Thursday evening was visit the sick. Friday evening was choir practice. I mean, and at all those gatherings, we sang."
Sadly, Angelou and her brother Bailey experienced racism in their rural town of Stamps, Arkansas. During her eighth-grade graduation, a speaker said that black students would have limited employment opportunities in the future.
At the age of eight, Angelou, along with her brother, returned to St. Louis to live with their mother. Soon after, her mother's boyfriend sexually assaulted her. Angelou told her family what happened and the boyfriend was tried and convicted; he served one day in jail and shortly thereafter he was killed.
Angelou concluded that her voice had caused the death of her attacker, that her voice was in fact the voice of the Devil, so she refused to speak for five years. Only her brother Bailey could occasionally convince her to break her silence. Angelou later explained, "When I was 8 years old I became a mute and was a mute until I was 13, and I thought of my whole body as an ear, so I can go into a crowd and sit still and absorb all sound. That talent or ability has lasted and served me until today. "
Angelou and her brother returned to Momma in Stamps, where an aristocratic black woman named Mrs. Bertha Flowers gently encouraged the young girl to speak again. Flowers introduced her to great European authors, including Dickens and Shakespeare. Angelou said, "Shakespeare - I was very influenced - still am - by Shakespeare. I couldn't believe that a white man in the 16th century could so know my heart." Flowers also introduced her to black female artists, including Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.
However, racial tensions increased in the small town and Momma decided to send the siblings away again, to their mother, who was then living in San Francisco.
Angelou studied dance and drama for a time, but then she dropped out of school at the age of 14. She became San Francisco's first female streetcar driver.
Angelou struggled and at one point, was homeless. She slept with a teenage boy and conceived her only son, Guy, who was born when Angelou was just 16. She did, however, manage to earn her high school diploma.
Thus ended the chronicle of Angelou's early life, as told in "Caged Bird," but six more autobiographies would follow as the caged bird found freedom from oppression and learned to fly.
Angelou and her mother became closer during her pregnancy. Her mother's worldly advice and friendship were just what Maya Angelou needed at the time: "Well, my mom was a terrible parent of young children. And thank God - I thank God every time I think of it - I was sent to my paternal grandmother. Ah, but my mother was a great parent of a young adult."
After the birth of her son, Angelou cast about for a number of years, searching for her place in the world. She dabbled in many occupations, including work as a fry cook, a dancer, and actress. But she always found time to write. "I liked to write from the time I was about 12 or 13," she said. "I loved to read. And since I only spoke to my brother, I would write down my thoughts. And I think I wrote some of the worst poetry west of the Rockies. But by the time I was in my 20s, I found myself writing little essays and more poetry - writing at writing."
In 1954 and '55 she toured Europe in a production of "Porgy and Bess," and in 1957 she recorded a music album, "Miss Calypso." In 1958 she played a queen in an off-Broadway production, "The Blacks," and also joined the Harlem Writers Guild in New York.
Expanding her horizons beyond the entertainment industry, Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt, in 1960, to edit an English-language newspaper, "The Arab Observer." Still in Africa, she wrote for "The Ghanaian Times" and taught at the University of Ghana School of Music and Drama. During this time, she met Malcolm X.
In 1964 Angelou returned to the U.S. with Malcolm X, to help him form his Organization of African Unity. They had planned to take their cause to the United Nations, to gain their assistance in fighting for civil rights in America, but Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
Angelou then wrote and performed in "Cabaret for Freedom," a show which ran for five weeks to raise money for Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He invited Angelou to serve as the Northern Coordinator for the Conference, a post which she accepted. She once remarked, "Won't it be wonderful when black history and native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book. Just U.S. history."
Martin Luther King was assassinated on Maya Angelou's fortieth birthday in 1968; thereafter, she did not celebrate the date of her birth.
Author James Baldwin, a close friend, witnessed Angelou's depression following the death of King. As a diversion, he brought her to a dinner party in 1968 at the home of cartoonist Jules Feiffer, where the guests took turns telling tales from childhood. Feiffer's wife, Judy, was impressed by Angelou. Judy Feiffer, James Baldwin, and Random House editor Robert Loomis soon conspired to convince Angelou to write a book. After two years of intense effort, she completed "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
She later said, "Autobiography is awfully seductive; it's wonderful. Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass - the slave narrative - speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying 'I,' meaning 'we.'"
While writing this autobiography and all subsequent works, Angelou employed a specific working method. She would rent a hotel room, take down the pictures so the room was sparse, and simply write. Housekeeping staff were not even allowed to change the sheets, since Angelou never slept there. She once summarized her routine as follows: "I keep a hotel room in my town, although I have a large house. And I go there at about 5:30 in the morning, and I start working. And I don't allow anybody to come in that room. I work on yellow pads and with ballpoint pens. I keep a Bible, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry. I stay there until midday."
Angelou loved words - their power and their beauty. She explained, "To take a few nouns, and a few pronouns, and adverbs and adjectives, and put them together, ball them up, and throw them against the wall to make them bounce. That's what Norman Mailer did. That's what James Baldwin did, and Joan Didion did, and that's what I do - that's what I mean to do."
Throughout her middle age and later years, Angelou was a free spirit, a free bird, willing to fly all over the world, experience new places and people, and develop new talents. She said, "You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive."
Angelou would never say how many men she married, because she did not want to be characterized as flighty, but there were several.
She was willing to try anything, if it suited her, without worrying much about the opinions of others. "I know some people might think it odd - unworthy even - for me to have written a cookbook, but I make no apologies. The U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins thought I had demeaned myself by writing poetry for Hallmark Cards, but I am the people's poet so I write for the people."
Angelou encouraged all of us to be free spirits. "The most important thing I can tell you about aging is this," she said. "If you really feel that you want to have an off-the-shoulder blouse and some big beads and thong sandals and a dirndl skirt and a magnolia in your hair, do it. Even if you're wrinkled."
Angelou lived life with such joy, such verve. The former caged bird rejoiced, "I've conducted the Boston Pops! Imagine that! Me! Maya Angelou! I've sang and danced at La Scala!"
Angelou was recognized for her talent in many arenas. She said, "I have a theory that nobody understands talent any more than we understand electricity. So I think we've done a real disservice to young people by telling them, 'Oh, you be careful. You'll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.' It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades." She certainly lived those words.
In 1971 she was nominated for a Pulitzer for her work, "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die," and in 1973 she was nominated for a Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) Tony Award for her role in "Look Away."
In 1993 she recited a poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton; the recording of which won her a Grammy. She was only the second poet to compose an inaugural poem, the first being Robert Frost, for John F. Kennedy.
In 1993 Angelou had a cameo role in the film, "Poetic Justice," and in 1998 she directed her first feature film, "Down in the Delta."
She won more Grammys, two NAACP Image Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., which she received in 2010 from President Barack Obama.
In 2011 she wrote a poem in honor of her friend, Martin Luther King, for the dedication of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Angelou credited her years of mutism for many of her talents, including a facility for learning languages. She spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Fanti, a West African language. She said, "Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything."
Maya Angelou died at home on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We will always remember the songs of this lovely bird, who refused to be caged. She once remarked that she would choose these words for her epitaph: "I did my best, I hope you do the same."