Marguerite Annie Johnson, more commonly known as Maya Angelou, is an African-American feminist known best for her poetry and for being a vivid civil rights activist. As a woman of many talents, she also dabbled in acting, screenwriting and dancing. However, behind the scenes, her life wasn’t always smooth-sailing.
Angelou was born in Missouri in 1928, becoming the younger sister to her brother that was a year older. At age three, her parents divorced and both her and her brother were sent to live with their prosperous grandmother. Although, four years later, their father abruptly sent them back to live with their mother, which was when Angelou’s life forever changed. Angelou was sexually abused and raped by Freeman, her mother’s boyfriend, at eight-years-old. Not knowing who to turn to, she confided in her brother, who in turn told their entire family about the incident. Freeman was jailed for only one day, but four days after he was released, he was murdered, assumingly by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou felt immense guilt for what had happened. She felt as if her words killed him, and blamed his murder on herself. This would cause her to go mute for five years. Angelou and her brother were then sent back to their grandmother, where she met a teacher named Bertha Flowers. Flowers helped her start speaking once again and introduced her to various authors and black female artists, which would inspire her in ways she could not imagine.
As a young adult, Angelou worked hard to get her so-called dream job as a cable car conductor. With her resilience, she became the first black cable car conductor within San Francisco, California. Little did she know, this wouldn’t be her first feat as a black woman, and she had many more feats ahead of her. A few years later, Angelou started learning various dances and performed for various black organizations. She also started dancing and singing at nightclubs in San Francisco and even recorded her first album. Later, she moved to New York to pursue a writing career, which in short, is one of the most famous aspects of her life. Multiple poetry pieces written by Angelou had been nominated for prestigious awards, her most famous poetry piece being I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. She was also the first black woman to write a screenplay. Later, Angelou went on to meet Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X, and became the Northern Leader of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
As for her role in feminism, Angelou brought light to many issues surrounding women, particularly the hardships of African-American women. She did so through her various written pieces. Her poetry piece named I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was written about her childhood, reflecting her experience with sexual assault and the lasting effects it had on her. This poem alone raised awareness regarding sexual abuse and encouraged other black women to write pieces surrounding feminism. Black women, and women, in general, were no longer ashamed of their experiences, nor did they have as much fear to share their personal experiences. Her success within her writing also inspired and allowed other women to pursue a career in writing without fear of judgment. Another poem titled Phenomenal Women was just one of the many poems written by Angelou that empowered women and encouraged women to have faith and confidence in themselves. It picks apart society’s standards for women and brings light to both misogyny and internalized misogyny. As well, Angelou is openly a feminist. As she once said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
Evidently, Angelou’s pieces were a huge cultural reset and normalized the success of African-American women within the singing, writing, and dancing industry. It is said that she cleared the way for modern-day black female artists such as Nicki Minaj. Clearly, her influence within the industry and within society, in general, is unmatched.