Sunday, February 8, 2009

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928),[2] is an American poet, playwright, memoirist, actress, author, producer and an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. She has been called "America's most visible black female autobiographer".[3] Angelou is known for her series of six autobiographies, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (1969) which was nominated for a National Book Award.[4] Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.[5] Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.[6] She has been highly honored for her body of work, including being awarded over 30 honorary degrees.[4] Early years Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928 to Bailey Johnson, a doorman and naval dietitian, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later a merchant marine. Angelou's brother, Bailey Jr., gave her the nickname "Maya".[7] The details of Angelou's life, although described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles, tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, explains that when Angelou speaks about her life, she does so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her".[8] In 2008, Angelou's family history was profiled on the PBS series African American Lives 2. A DNA test showed that she was descended from the Mende people of West Africa.[9] The program's research showed that Angelou's maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, emancipated after the Civil War, cut all ties with her slave past and renamed herself "Kentucky Shannon" because "she liked how it sounded". Little was known about Lee's background because she prohibited anyone from knowing about it. Angelou learned that Lee became pregnant out of wedlock by her former owner, a white man named John Savin, and that he forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father. A grand jury indicted Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County, Missouri poorhouse with her daughter, who became Angelou's grandmother, Marguerite Baxter. Angelou's reaction after learning this information was, "That poor little black girl, physically and mentally bruised."[10] Angelou's first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recounts the first 16 years of her life. When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended, and their father sent them alone by train to live with his mother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.[11] Henderson prospered financially during this time, the years of the Great Depression and World War II, because the general store she owned sold basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments".[12] Four years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis.[13] At age eight, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was jailed for one day but was found kicked to death four days after his release. Angelou became mute, believing, as she has 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..."[14] She remained nearly mute for five years.[15] Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again. Angelou credits Bertha Flowers, a friend and teacher, with helping her speak again and introducing her to classical literature and authors. These authors include Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Georgia, Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.[17] When Angelou was 13, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in San Francisco, California; during World War II, she attended George Washington High School and studied dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.[18] Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet.[19] At the end of Angelou's third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her son announced that he wanted to be called "Guy Johnson" and trained his friends and family to accept it.[20] Angelou's second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19. As Lupton states, this book "depicts a single mother's slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime."[21] Angelou writes in her book Gather Together in My Name that she made her living working as a prostitute and later became the 'madame' of a brothel. In those years, Angelou went through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without the benefit of job training or advanced education. Lupton states, "Nevertheless, she was able to survive through trial and error, while at the same time defining herself in terms of being a black woman."[20] Angelou learned how to perform professionally for live audiences, and exhibited a natural dancing ability and talent. Adulthood and early career Angelou won a scholarship to study dance with Trinidadian choreographer Pearl Primus and married Greek sailor Tosh Angelos in 1952; the marriage ended in divorce after one-and-a-half years. Angelou tends not to admit how many times she has been married, "for fear of sounding frivolous",[22] although it has been at least three times.[23] Known by "Rita Johnson" up to that point, she changed her name when her managers at San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion strongly suggested that she adopt a "more theatrical" name that captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances.[12] She co-created a dance team, "Al and Rita", with choreographer Alvin Ailey, who combined elements of modern dance, ballet, and West African tribal dancing.[24] She toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1954–1955, studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Ailey on television variety shows, and recorded her first record album, Miss Calypso, in 1957. Angelou's third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, covered her early dancing and singing career. One of the themes of this book was the conflict she felt between her desire to be a good mother and a successful performer, a situation "very familiar to mothers with careers".[25] By the end of the 1950s, Angelou moved to San Diego, where she acted in off-Broadway productions and met artists and writers active in the Civil Rights Movement. From 1959 to 1960, Angelou held the position of Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the early 1960s, Angelou briefly lived with South African freedom fighter Vusumi Make; she moved with him and her son Guy to Cairo, Egypt, where she became an associate editor at the weekly newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962, her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Ghana. She became an assistant administrator and instructor at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, was a feature editor for The African Review, acted, and wrote plays.[18][26] In her travels Angelou learned French, Spanish, and Fante.[26] Angelou became close friends with Malcolm X in Ghana and returned to America in 1964 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of African American Unity.[27] King was assassinated on her birthday (April 4) in 1968. She did not celebrate her birthday for many years for that reason;[28] she sent flowers to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, every year until King's death in 2006.[29] Inspired by a meeting with her friend James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and Feiffer's wife Judy, she dealt with her grief by writing her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.[30] Later career In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a British-born carpenter and remodeler, and moved with him and her son to Sonoma, California. The years to follow were some of Angelou's most productive years as a writer and poet. She composed music for movies, wrote articles, short stories, and poetry for several magazines, continued to write autobiographies, produced plays, lectured at universities throughout the country, and served on various committees. She appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots in 1977, wrote for television, and composed songs for Roberta Flack.[31] Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first original script by a black woman to be produced.[32] She taught at the University of California.[26] It was during this time, in the late '70s, that Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore; Angelou became Winfrey's friend and mentor in 1984.[33][29] Angelou divorced de Feu and returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.[31] In 1993, she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, the first poet to do an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.[6] Also in 1993, Angelou's poems were featured in the Janet Jackson/John Singleton film Poetic Justice, in which Angelou also made a brief appearance.[34] In 2006, Angelou became a radio talk show host for the first time, hosting a weekly show for XM Satellite Radio's Oprah & Friends channel.[35] Also in 2006, singer Nancy Wilson set Angelou's poem "My Life Has Turned to Blue" to music in the title track of her CD, "Turned to Blue".[36] In 2007, she became the first African-American woman and living poet to be featured in the Poetry for Young People series of books from Sterling Publishing.[37] Since the 1990s, Angelou has been a busy participant in the lecture circuit. In 1993, she was making about 80 speaking appearances a year;[6] in 2008, she charged approximately US$43,000 per engagement.[38] In 1997, over 2,000 tickets were sold when she spoke at the Woman's Foundation in San Francisco. Her most common speaking engagements occur on college campuses, "where seating is sold out long before the actual event."[39] When Angelou speaks, she sits on a stool and entertains the audience for approximately one hour, reciting poems by memory and following a flexible outline.[40] By the early 2000s, Angelou traveled to her speaking engagements and book tour stops by tour bus. She "gave up flying, unless it is really vital .. not because she was afraid, but because she was fed up with the hassle of celebrity".[22] Starting in March 1999, a poem called "Clothes" that was attributed to Angelou circulated on the Internet. The poem makes a number of false and defamatory claims labeling various clothing manufacturers (such as FUBU, Timberland, and Eckō lines) as racists and/or members of the KKK. Angelou has denied on her website that she wrote the poem.[41][42] In 1998, Angelou went on her first cruise, a gift of her friend Winfrey, in celebration of her 70th birthday. Over 150 people were in attendance.[28] In April 2008, Angelou had three parties to celebrate her 80th birthday. A "pricy soiree" that included a red carpet and "a guest list of celebrities" was held in Atlanta, Georgia to benefit a YMCA youth center named after her. There was also a city-wide event celebrated by Winston-Salem, North Carolina,[43] and Winfrey hosted "an extravagant 80th birthday celebration" at Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. She was serenaded by Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Jessye Norman, and Ashford and Simpson.[40] In 2002, Angelou lent her name and writings to a line of products from the Hallmark Greeting Card Company.[44] In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Maya Angelou on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[45] In March 2008, Angelou stated that she plans to spend part of the year studying at the Unity Church. In 2005, she attended a Unity Church service in Miami and decided that day to "go into a kind of religious school and study" on her 80th birthday.[46] Angelou became involved in US presidential politics in 2008 by placing her public support behind Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, despite her good friend Winfrey's public support of Barack Obama.[29] When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Obama.[47] Courtesy of:

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