Maya Angelou: Survive And Thrive With Passion, Compassion, Humor And Style

Maya Angelou: activist, author, poet, performer

‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.’

That Maya Angelou, the American poet, memoirist, singer and civil rights activist achieved that mission with some dash and bravery is incontestable; her execution of that passionate life little short of remarkable.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928 in St Louis to Bailey Johnson, a doorman and naval dietician, and Vivian, a nurse, professional gambler, bar owner and entertainer, she and her brother – also Bailey were sent to live with their religious paternal mother after their parents’ separation, in the segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas where, formatively, Bertha Flowers, an educated black citizen, encouraged her to read Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare and via whose influence she developed her abiding love of the spoken word. But it was five years after that when, aged eight, she suffered the trauma that would silence her when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided the abuse to her brother who told the rest of the family; her abuser was jailed for a single day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, most likely by Angelou’s uncles. The horror of what had happened to her, followed by the terrifying power of having spoken the truth, rendered Angelou mute for five years.

Yet she emerged and found her voice. Having moved with her mother and brother to San Francisco, that liberated city gave her the impetus to take dance lessons, at which she excelled and she earned herself an audition for professional theatre. But soon after, the arrival of her son when she was just 16 put paid to her ambitions; a move to San Diego, and a slide into drugs, prostitution and dancing in a strip club may have stemmed them forever, as she wrote of in Gather Together in My Name (1974), the second volume in her autobiographical sequence. But still she rose.

Life is rarely linear in its trajectory of triumphs and adversity and, true to its mysterious workings, it was the strip club that would prove her salvation. It was there that she was discovered by a theatre group, who cast her in Porgy and Bess, with whom she toured 22 countries from 1954 to 1955.

Angelou’s eyes had been opened and, after that shaping year, she moved to New York, where she would befriend seminal Harlem writers, John Oliver Killens and James Baldwin, who encouraged her to take her creative work seriously. It is also when she became involved in the civil rights movement.

Soon after, Angelous moved to Africa, along with her son, following her new love, the South African Civil Rights activist, Vusumzi Make. There she worked as a journalist for the Arab Observer, taught at the University of Ghana and met Malcolm X, whom she returned to the US to work alongside. After his assassination, she began to work more closely with Martin Luther King, whose own murder on 4 April 1968 – Angelou’s 40th birthday – ripped her world apart.

The following year, she completed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, describing her childhood and changing awareness between the ages of three and 17, portraying her glamorous mother, her dignified grandmother and her much-loved brother amidst the tensions between the races in the south during the depression. Over the next four decades, she published six follow-up memoirs, detailing her life, and through which she encouraged what she called ‘womanism’, as opposed to the Anglo-American feminism, which she felt lacked love and warmth. Womanism, by contrast, celebrated black women’s strength, sexual fulfilment and understanding of their absolute equality with men.

Angelou went on to write and deliver a poem for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993 and later, when Obama was elected, she said: ‘We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.’ Later, he echoed her own words back at her, when he said, ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’

Her kindness too, informed all she did, encapsulated in this heart-stoppingly wise sentiment: ‘The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you. May not call God the same name you call God – if they call God at all. I may not dance your dances or speak your language. But be a blessing to somebody. That’s what I think.’


Words by Nancy Allsop For Modern Woman Magazine Issue 4

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