Maya Angelou-The Story Sets You Free

A very interesting and inspiring story of a woman who worked as a prostitute and nightclub dancer in her youth and ended up becoming a prominent writer, poet and director-producer of plays, movies, and public television programs.

Maya Angelou (or Marguerite Annie Johnson) was born on April 4, 1928. She was an American author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. She received several awards in her lifetime as well as more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her autobiographical series and the first one in the series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969, her life up to the age of 17) won her international acclaim.

Early childhood
When Angelou was merely three and her brother a year older, their parents separated, and their father sent them to live with their paternal grandmother alone by train. After few years they shifted with their mother, where another catastrophe was waiting for Maya.

Shock, Creativity & Silence
Angelou was raped and abused by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She did not hide it and told her brother. In spite of the fact that Freeman was found guilty he was jailed for only one day. He was murdered after few days and shocked by his death, Angelou did not speak for almost five years, holding herself responsible for his death by revealing his name.

There was a beautiful and spiritual impact of this silence on her though. As per her biographer Marcia Ann Gillespie, it was during this period of silence Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her. A teacher Mrs. Bertha Flowers helped her speak again and introduced her to prominent authors.

Married Life
In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos, despite opposition from family and society, being an inter-racial relationship.  Later after separation from Tosh, she began her relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961 and married Paul du Feu in 1973 (which also ended up in divorce in 1981).

Early Career
Maya was known by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but at the strong suggestion of her night club manager at the Purple Onion she changed her name to "Maya Angelou" to make it distinctive. Angelou and dancer-choreographer Ailey formed a dance team “Al and Rita", and performed modern dance which was hardly a success.

She had a chequered career in her youth which included working as a fry cook, prostitute, nightclub dancer and performer, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Africa. Later she became a well known writer and poet. She also had successful stints as director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs.

Writing Career
Angelou met novelist John Oliver Killens in 1959 and moved to New York as per his suggestion. In New York, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African-American authors who created a twist in her story. 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".  In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Maryland; Angelou later became Winfrey's mentor as well as close friend.

Achievements Galore
In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. Despite having no bachelor's degree, she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She was also 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 President Bill Clinton's inauguration, making her the second poet to make an inaugural recitation for a President. The recording of the poem also ended up winning a Grammy Award.

When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou supported Senator Barack Obama who won the election and become the first African-American president of the United States. She was well respected as a spokesperson for black people & women. 

Angelou achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, “Down in the Delta”, which featured actors  Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. In 2000, she helped create several products for the renowned greeting card & gifts company Hallmark.

Relief in Telling the Truth
With the publication of, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, Angelou discussed aspects of her personal life publicly for the first time. She even shared the traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird. Angelou used to play cards to get to a place of enchantment. She stated, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I'm in it—ha! It's so delicious!" More than the healing, she found relief in "telling the truth.

In 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou published the seventh autobiography in her series, titled “Mom & Me & Mom” which talks about her relationship with her mother. She also had a desire to be addressed as "Dr. Angelou" by people outside of her family and close friends. It is a popular belief that Angelou's writings, have freed other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world"
(Image source -Positivity Toolbox Facebook Page)

Au Revoir
Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. Tributes to Angelou were paid by artists, entertainers, and world leaders, including President Clinton, and President Obama.  The week after Angelou's death, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings rose to #1 on's bestseller list. Her poems have been called the anthems of African Americans, though her poetry has not been as popular as her prose.

What sets you free-Story or Love?

"In the flush of love's light we dare be brave. 
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be.
Yet, it is only love which sets us free"- Maya Angelou

United States Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate Maya Angelou in 2015, with the Joan Walsh Anglund quote "A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song".

May be sharing her story had set her soul free or was it love which did?
Compiled from various sources, 
Dr Amit Nagpal


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