The Many Roads to Greatness

Maya Angelou, a gifted and highly recognized author and poet, had a challenging road to greatness. Given her life challenges how many of us would have imagined her to become a talented and highly acclaimed author. Hers was not a story of early success and recognition, leading to social and economic security. Her story was one of a challenge, hurt, trauma and the finding of redemption in writing. Please read below an excerpt of her biography. Imagine yourself going through her travail. How would you have been affected? Would you have shut down, withdrawn or lashed out? Clearly none of us know the answers to how we might have responded to Maya Angelou‘s challenges. What we see in her is her strength and ability to overcome adversity while recognizing that her trauma left a mark, but could be shared with others to let them know that trauma does not inevitably lead to the destruction of self but can lead to an enhanced awareness of life with all its richness and sorrow. From Wikipedia—

Maya Angelou born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim. She became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, sex worker, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Beginning in the 1990s, she made around 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life. She was respected as a spokesperson for black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of black culture. Her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide, although attempts have been made to ban her books from some US libraries. Angelou’s most Diversity—Cindy Goldberg, Co-Chair celebrated works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics consider them to be autobiographies. She made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family and travel. Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer, Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, derived from “My” or “Mya Sister”. When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents’ “calamitous marriage” ended, and their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In “an astonishing exception” to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because “she made wise and honest investments” Four years later, the children’s father “came to Stamps without warning” and returned them to their mother’s care in St. Louis. At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her. Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect her life and career, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 14, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again, who had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California Labor School. At the age of 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She wanted the job badly, admiring the uniforms of the operators—so much so that her mother referred to it as her “dream job.” Her mother encouraged her to pursue the position, but warned her that she would need to arrive early and work harder than Minority Transportation Officials as part of a session billed “Women Who Move the Nation.“ Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson) Angelou met novelist John Oliver Killens in 1959 and, at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African American authors, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and was published for the first time. In 1960, after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing him speak, she and Killens organized “the legendary”[ Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator. According to scholar Lyman B. Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and “eminently effective.” Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march. She agrees, but “postpones again”, and in what Gillespie calls “a macabre twist of fate”, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin. As Gillespie states, “If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius”. Despite having almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black!, a ten-part series of documentaries about the connection between blues music and black Americans’ African heritage, and what Angelou called the “Africanisms still current in the US” for National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS. Also in 1968, inspired at a dinner party she attended with Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and his wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. This brought her international recognition and acclaim. In 1977, Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries Roots. She was given a multitude of awards during this period, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world. In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey’s close friend and mentor. In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced. She returned to the southern United States in 1981 because she felt she had to come to terms with her past there and, despite having no bachelor’s degree, accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she was one of a few full-time African American professors. From that point on, she considered herself “a teacher who writes.” Angelou taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. They consisted of more than 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about, even traumatic experiences such as her rape in Caged Bird, in order to “tell the human truth” about her life. Angelou stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, fan mail, and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues such as her editor Robert Loomis. In 2011, Angelou served as a consultant for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. She spoke out in opposition to a paraphrase of a quotation by King that appeared on the memorial, saying, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” and demanded that it be changed. Eventually, the paraphrase was removed. In 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou published the seventh volume of autobiography in her series, titled Mom & Me & Mom, which focuses on her relationship with her mother. Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou used the same “writing ritual” for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon. She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. She went through this process to “enchant” herself, and as she said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, “relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang.” She placed herself back in the time she wrote enchantment and in order to access her memories more effectively. She said, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” She did not find the process cathartic; rather, she found relief in “telling the truth.” Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014.

In conclusion when we read of Maya Angelou overcoming her great struggles and also her being aware of their mark on her, we realize that all human beings have tremendous capacities to endure and overcome life’s challenges, but those capacities must be nurtured either from within the individual through their own strength and courage but also through the support of those around them. The role the larger society plays in either supporting or traumatizing the individual, or an entire gender or culture cannot be underestimated. Here we might give thought to how we treat one another and in what ways on a daily basis we affirm or deny the humanity that all of us share.

Fondly submitted for the diversity committee.

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