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Black History Month Feature: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is well known for her poetry, but most may not know about her difficult story and the hardships she had to go through at a young age. There are many things that make Angelou so unique and special. She had so many different occupations, including being a singer, dancer, actress, composer, author, editor, play writer, and civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. 

English teacher at Camas High School, Lindsay Peters, said, “Maya Angelou was one of the first authors I read that gave me perspective on what it’s like to be a person of color in our country and, because her writing is timeless, I think it will continue opening people’s eyes to the experiences of black people. She also was just an amazing writer and speaker from a technical standpoint which means it is an artistic experience to read and hear her work.” She also says; “She is unafraid to discuss the hardships she has faced in her own life in the broader hardships that women and people of color face every day.”

Angelou grew up in the early 1900s during a time where the United States was extremely segregated. She experienced prejudice, racism, and abuse because of her race. Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents were divorced when she was young and Angelou and her brother, whom she was very close with, lived with their grandma in Stamps, Arkansas.

When she was eight she visited her mother in St. Louis and was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the time. She only told her brother about the abusive encounter and after Angelou’s uncles found out they beat him up and killed him. For five years after that, Angelou decided not to speak for the next five years of her life. She said she thought her voice had killed the man.

Courtesy of New York Public Radio.

She started to write essays and poetry in her personal journal around this time, and she fell in love with writing. After her mute phase, she moved to San Francisco during World War II to live with her mom and brother. As she started to branch out, she was awarded a scholarship for studying dance and acting at California Labor School. Soon after, she dropped out of high school, and at fifteen years old, became the first-ever African American woman to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She also began to be apart of many civil rights movements. Angelou took on the world at such a young age and even became the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Originally founded by Martin Luther King Jr.).

She went back to high school after having a baby boy and graduated. In 1952 she got married to the father of her child, Tosh Angelou. But, they were divorced after only five years of marriage. Also at this time she went off to start her singing career. Angelou quickly flourished as an entertainer and took on Broadway and other parts of the entertainment industry. She even released her own album at this time as well. 

After so many careers, Angelou started to focus more on her writing. Her biography, other books, and especially poetry started to become very popular.

1985, Maya Angelou leading a protest 1985 to demand U.C. Berkeley divest from the apartheid government of South Africa.
Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.

On January 20th, 1993, Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. She was the second poet, the first African-American, and the first woman ever to read at an inauguration.

CHS English teacher Lori Lackland said, “She’s an incredible, world-renowned poet. She’s able to convey through her poetry emotional honesty in a way that reveals her earned wisdom the reader trust her. But she’s also an abuse survivor. Childhood and domestic abuse survivors have the odds stacked against them and Angelo’s Victory and learning from her experience and not only impressive it serves as a model for abuse survivors of all Races. Add the context that she accomplished all this as a black woman who came from age during the Civil Rights era and a person can begin to understand why she is so important.”

Angelou has never been afraid to speak out or voice her opinions. She always fought for women’s rights and racial equality. Angelou was an amazing and strong Black woman. She passed away on May 28th, 2014, but has and will continue to be an inspiration to anyone who hears her story. 

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