Today is the birthday of Maya Angelou, perhaps one of the most well-known Black American writers of the 20th century.
Below is an excerpt of Angelou’s In Memoriam entry in Contemporary Literary Criticism: volume 389.
(Pseudonym of Marguerite Annie Johnson) American autobiographer, poet, essayist, children’s writer, playwright, and screenwriter.
The following entry provides criticism of Angelou’s life and works. For additional information about Angelou, see CLC, Volumes 12, 35, 64, and 77; for additional information about the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, see CLC, Volume 155.
Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on 28 May 2014. Though some of Angelou’s reviewers criticized her “facile and solipsistic” autobiographical writing and others considered her poetry “little more than prose with line breaks,” Margalit Fox (2014; see Further Reading) contended that her legacy “as a literary, cultural and historical figure was amply borne out by the many laurels she received.” Lev Grossman (2014; see Further Reading) asserted that Angelou’s “energy was enormous and her activity incessant,” citing her lifelong devotion to education as evidence of her “relentless creativity” and intelligence. Writing for the Winston-Salem Journal, Michael Hewlett (2014; see Further Reading) concluded that Angelou “never allowed her light or her voice to be dimmed.”
Angelou mined her personal experience as a black woman to explore social issues, such as racism and sexism, and personal issues, such as psychological and spiritual growth, in her work. Although she is best known for the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), her writings embrace a variety of genres, from poetry to children’s books and plays for the stage and screen. Angelou received considerable attention from both the popular and scholarly presses for her wide-ranging work. In addition to being a widely recognized author, she also worked as a singer, dancer, film director, lecturer, and civil-rights activist.
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born on 4 April 1928 in St. Louis, the daughter of Vivian Baxter, a nurse and card dealer, and Bailey Johnson, Sr., a dietitian in the US Navy. Her brother Bailey, Jr., gave her the nickname “Maya.” Her parents divorced and sent three-year-old Johnson and her four-year-old brother to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie (“Momma”) Henderson, a religious woman who provided a safe and stable home for the siblings. When Johnson was seven or eight years old, she was raped during a visit to see her mother in St. Louis. The perpetrator was convicted in court but killed—most likely by her uncles, according to Angelou’s later account—before he could begin his prison sentence. Afraid that her words had caused his death, Johnson remained mute for about five years.
Johnson spent most of her teenage years with her mother in California, where she became the first black woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She gave birth to her son, Guy, when she was sixteen years old and in the following years, took various jobs in order to support him. After her first marriage to the Greek seaman Tosh Angelos ended, Johnson began to work as a singer and dancer under the name Maya Angelou. She moved to New York City, where she was affiliated with the Harlem Writers Guild and worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights organization. Her relationship with South African activist Vusumzi Make led her to Africa, where she lived in Cairo, Egypt, and in Accra, Ghana. She returned to the United States when the relationship ended. Encouraged by her friends, including author James Baldwin, to write an autobiography, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to critical acclaim. She married Paul du Feu, a Welshman, in 1973; they divorced in 1981.
Angelou was a prolific writer, publishing in a number of genres, but she is best known for her autobiographies, poetry, and essays. She performed in feature-length films and on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for her performance in the 1973 play Look Away. A gifted orator, she lectured throughout the United States. Angelou served as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina beginning in 1981 and was the recipient of fifty honorary degrees from educational institutions, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Her recitation of the poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” published by itself in 1993, at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton that same year; her friendship with media personality Oprah Winfrey; and her line of Hallmark greeting cards and keepsakes increased her fame.
To read more, see Contemporary Literary Criticism: Volume 389, available in print and through Gale Literary Sources.