Performing “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration:
Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis Missouri. Her full name was Margeurite, but her older brother had trouble saying her name so he started calling her “Maya” for short. Maya’s parents had trouble getting along and when she was three they divorced. Her parents thought it would be better for her grandmother raised them instead, so they sent Maya and her brother on a train to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. They called their grandma Henderson “Momma.” Most of the people in Stamps were black and it was a segregated town. “Segregated” means that everyone who was black attended a different school, ate at their own restaurants, and lived in their own neighborhood. Maya’s grandmother and her son, Uncle Willy, owned a store in Stamps, and Maya and her brother, Bailey, lived in a room in the back of the store.
Momma loved her grandchildren and took good care of them. She also wanted them to be responsible, so she taught them good manners and made them help at the store. Often Maya’s job was to sweep the floors. Their Uncle Willy taught them to read and believed they should have an education. It was at this time that Maya fell in love with words as she read new books. One of her favorite authors was William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens was another favorite.
While living in Stamps, Maya’s brother, Bailey, was her best friend. They spent all of their time working and playing and learning together. They loved to run in the woods and had lots of freedom. Bailey always stood up for Maya when people teased her or said mean things. She loved her older brother very much.
In 1935 Maya’s father came to Stamps to bring them back to the city where he lived, St. Louis, Missouri. They weren’t used to the city but were glad to see their mother again who also lived there. St. Louis had a big library and Maya spent her free time checking out books and reading them at the library. Before this time Maya had a safe childhood, but when she was 7 she was hurt by her mother’s boyfriend. This horrible experience caused her to stop talking. No one knew what to do. Eventually, Maya and Baily moved back to Stamps to be with her Grandmother and Uncle Willy again. For five years Maya didn’t speak. Instead, she spent most of her time reading and writing.
In 1941 Maya’s Grandmother decided they needed to move back in with their mother who now lived in San Francisco, California, because the schools were better there. She and Bailey were now 13 and 14 and enjoyed the new city with the amazing Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars. Maya liked her new school and did well there. She spent her free time writing poems and her own stories. She also started taking singing and dancing lessons. But Bailey had a harder time in San Francisco and often got into trouble and ran away from home. Maya missed Bailey and this caused her to struggle in school. She decided to take a break and look for a job. In San Francisco people used cable cars on tracks to move all around the city. Maya applied to be a cable car conductor, the person who takes people’s tickets and helps them on the cable car. She ended up becoming the first African American cable conductor! After a semester of working, she decided to back to school. She also learned that Bailey joined the Navy and they wrote letters back and forth. She was happy to hear from her brother again.
In 1945, during her last year of high school, Maya had her first baby and named him Clyde Bailey after her brother. She and the father didn’t end up getting married, so Maya was left to raise Clyde on her own. For the next several years she worked as a waitress to earn enough money to take care of Clyde. She also worked at a music store and later as a Calypso dancer at a club called The Purple Onion. There she sang and danced for the audience. Performing before an audience made Maya very nervous, but she did it anyway and found she had a talent for it and got better and better as she continued to practice and improve her skill.
Soon people all over San Francisco were waiting in lines at The Purple Onion to watch Maya perform. Her name started showing up in the newspapers and on the radio. Her next big break was joining a touring group that performed a musical called Porgy and Bess. They traveled all over Europe and Africa, visiting 22 different countries to perform. Maya loved visiting foreign countries and while traveling began to learn other languages and write about the places she visited.
When the tour was done she returned home to be with her son and continued working as a dancer. But Maya knew her real love was writing poems and stories. She had many experiences in her life she wanted to share with others. While living in Los Angeles, she met a famous author, John Oliver Killens, who read some of her stories and encouraged her to move to New York, so she could share her own stories.
In New York City Maya joined the Harlem City Writer’s Guild, where writers met to share their stories and give each other advice. In New York Maya went to listen to a speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke about how people should be treated the same, no matter the color of their skin. Maya liked Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped put on a show to raise money for him and his cause, which was called the Civil Rights Movement. They believed that all people should be equal and treated the same. They wanted to end segregation.
Maya continued to help with the Civil Rights Movements by writing and helping earn money for the cause. She later moved to Egypt to help with Civil Rights in Africa. There she wrote for a newspaper and met other famous Civil Rights Leaders like Malcolm X.
Maya moved back to New York to continue writing and speaking about Civil Rights. There a famous black author and friend, James Baldwin, encouraged Maya to write her life’s story. This is called an autobiography. When Maya finished her autobiography in 1969 she gave it the title “I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings.” She gave it this title because many times in her life she felt like she was living in a cage, not always free to live and act the way she wanted. To Maya, this cage was racism and abuse. But her story was also hopeful, like the bird singing, because she believed that even when someone’s life is hard and painful they can still find joy and happiness. Her book, “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” was a huge success and soon many knew about Maya Angelou and her incredible life story.
Maya continued to write. She wrote a book of poems and a screenplay for a movie. She starred in a musical on Broadway and a TV miniseries called “Roots” about the history of slavery in America. She was also married to a French cartoonist and writer. Her son was married and had a child of his own, so she became a grandmother.
Maya wrote more books of poems and traveled and spoke and told her life story to inspire others and give them hope. She read her poems for three of the Presidents and in 2010 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.
In 2014 Maya died peacefully in her home in North Carolina. She was 86 years old and after her passing people all around the world spoke about how much they loved her and loved the words she wrote. Her life and actions and deeds were an inspiration to so many people over the years.
Maya once wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
She also wrote, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Finally, “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”