Marguerite Johnson’s childhood was marked by the hardship of the Depression years in which she grew up. Her parents divorced and packed her off to live with her granny, “Momma” Henderson, who eked out a living in Stamps, Arkansas, running a little general store. Marguerite, known as Maya, attended church devotedly with Momma, who gave her stability and taught her the importance of values and a strong work ethic. The young girl found love and roots with her grandmother and the congregation at their church.
But tragedy struck when she visited her mother in St. Louis for eight months. Her mother had a boyfriend who spent a lot of time at her mother’s house and often touched and hugged the seven-year-old overly much, but, in her innocence, she mistook it for a father’s love. Later, he raped her, and Maya felt guilty and responsible for his jailing and subsequent death at the hands of other inmates who exacted their own brand of justice on a child molester. She became catatonic as a result of this onslaught of catastrophic violence. With the support of her family and an adult friend, Bertha Flowers, who introduced her to literature, Maya gradually reentered the world, speaking after five years and graduating first in her eighth grade class.
Maya and her mother then moved to San Francisco, where her mother ran a boardinghouse and worked as a professional gambler. Maya met many colorful characters among the boarders and threw herself into school where she flourished. She got pregnant at sixteen and took on the full responsibilities of motherhood with the birth of her son, Guy. For a few years, Maya walked on the wild side: working at a Creole restaurant, waitressing at a bar in San Diego, even an accidental and brief stint as a madam for two lesbian prostitutes. After a two-year marriage to a white man, Maya started dancing at the Purple Onion and got into show biz in the road show for “Porgy and Bess,” which toured Africa and Europe. After cowriting “Cabaret for Freedom” with Godfrey Cambridge, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Maya drew Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attention for her talent and contribution to the civil rights movement, and he invited her to serve as an SCLC coordinator.
Maya’s career was absolutely astonishing after this point, living in Egypt with Guy and her lover, a South African freedom fighter, and working in Ghana writing for The African Review. She remained involved with the theater, writing and performing in plays, acting in Roots, and writing several volumes of poetry as well as the script and music for the movie of her autobiography. But it is for the six best-selling volumes of her autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , that she will go down in literary history. (The New York Times called her “one of the geniuses of Afro-American serial autobiography.”) Written with captivating honesty, color, and verve, they are read by youth and adults alike for their inspirational message. Listen to this powerful passage from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
When she was criticized for not being completely factual as a writer, Maya responded, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.” Maya Angelou, a name combined from a nickname her brother called her and a variation on her first husband’s name, truly reinvented herself. No moment in her wonderfully colorful life illustrates this as much as her reading of her beautiful poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She had come a long way from the scared and silent little seven-year-old to a woman come fully into her power, unafraid to share that with the world.