Maya Angelou is, perhaps, one of the most famed poets who ever lived. Despite the fact that she was both black and female, living in an age where being one was looked down on and being both meant big trouble, Angelou managed to persevere in her life work and not only became an incredible poet, but also an inspiring civil rights activist, public speaker, and autobiographer.
Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1957. After her parents’ calamitous marriage fell out, she and her sisters were sent to live with her paternal grandmother who, in exception to being an African-American entrepreneur at the time, prospered during the Great Depression and the Second World War. There, they prospered, but as with all things, it was temporary: after four years, their father brought them to live with their mother in St. Louis. Her early life in St. Louis was difficult; shortly after arriving, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He was murdered not five days after his conviction, but Angelou went mute for almost five years, believing that she was the one who killed him simply because she spoke his name.
John McWhorter once said that Angelou’s life was a full one, and he was absolutely correct. During her time in St. Louis, she accomplished many things: working as a fry cook, a sex worker, a journalist, a civil rights activist and organizer. Looking at Maya Angelou makes you wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life, and then realizing you don’t want to do everything she did, because there’s so much to do that you don’t think you can keep up. She eventually recovered from her tragic rape, and when she did, she returned with a vengeance. She joined with civil rights activist Martin Luther King in fighting for African-American equality, and was an acquaintance of Malcolm X in his time.
Angelou’s writing reflects her hard-won experience. Her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, reflects her early life and the many experiences she gained while in St. Louis and traveling with her activist colleagues. Her poetry forces one to confront the truth of their existence, and who they really are behind the masks they don in the face of others. Her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, written for the 1993 inaugural speech of Bill Clinton, is a reflection of this, telling the people of America not to hide, but to stand in the dawning of a new age with their faces turned to the sun.
Maya Angelou’ later life was one filled with speeches and rallies. Already, she was an iconic figure in both black and feminist activism, and she often attended rallies for these events. She died on May 28, 2014, after a long bout with failing health. Her legacy lives on, though, not only in her works, but in the ideologies she spread throughout America. If you want to read more, you can find her website here.