A voice is elevated either by song or the will to communicate something beyond the ordinary. With Maya Angelou, her “voice” came alive on the page. Using her uncanny gift for language, which spoke to both the poetic and the political throughout her life, she called for radical change and demanded a better world.
In the present day, with more than a half-century’s distance from the struggle, it is easy to forget the very real fight for civil rights. The fear, injustice and sudden violence erupting in city streets across America were more than just black-and-white photos in a history book. Angelou experienced those moments firsthand. Although she did pursue other types of work over the course of her career — from dancing to singing to teaching — writing was both her profession and passion.
Angelou always rode the winds of change and often stood in the heart of the storm. Her political involvement drove her to search, relentlessly, for equality in an unequal world. The author of, among other works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the poem “Still I Rise” died at the age of 86.
Here are some highlights of Angelou’s involvement in politics.
Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was three. After being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, she refused to speak for many years, eventually recovering with the help of teachers and through her love of literature. Shortly after graduating from high school, she gave birth to her son, Guy. Angelou then began a series of diverse jobs as a dancer, singer, waitress, cook, and as the first female African-American cable car conductor. Her passion for the performing arts took shape with her biggest professional break: a role in a European tour of Porgy and Bess. When she moved to New York, Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild.
Around the world (and back)
Angelou moved to Cairo in 1960, edited the English-language edition of The Arab Observer, took up activism, and founded the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage, an organization whose goal, Angelou wrote, was to “support all black civil rights groups.” She met Malcolm X while she was in Ghana writing articles for The Ghanaian Times. At his request, she helped start the Organization of Afro-African American Unity upon her return to the states, but the organization dissolved shortly after Malcolm X’s death. She was asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to become the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but after his assassination, she found other avenues to express her views. Befriending writer and fellow activist James Baldwin inspired Angelou to write her critically acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for writing the screenplay and composing the score of the film Georgia, Georgia (1972).
Supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights
Equality, whether for blacks in America, women, or the LGBT community, was Angelou’s primary concern. She contacted three New York state senators in 2009 and urged them to support gay rights. A human rights activist treasured by such organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal, Angelou was praised for her support. Upon her death, Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart wrote, “When our movement is led by people who know, understand and are working to overcome their struggle, our efforts to enact positive change are most effective. Maya Angelou dedicated her life to inspiring change through self-actualization and empowerment, and we mourn the loss of a brilliant woman who will continue to inspire change for generations.”
Angelou was more than a writer. She was an activist who cast a spell upon anyone who would listen. Her writings, performances, accolades, and accomplishments — which include a Presidential Medal of Freedom and more than 50 honorary degrees — should serve as a model for generations to come.