Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4th, 1928, Maya Anglou would go on to leave an indelible mark on American culture.
Maya Angelou’s Musical Career
Angelou didn’t begin her career as a writer, poet, and activist. During her early adulthood, she danced professionally at clubs around San Francisco. It was during this time that she took on the name that would eventually become famous; Maya Angelou. This name was a combination of her childhood nickname, and her married surname. Her managers during her dancing career believed this would be a more distinctive name and help her career. Angelou recorded a calypso album in 1957, titled Miss Calypso.
Angelou’s Writing Career And Activism
In 1959, she moved to New York to focus on her writing. In 1960, she met Martin Luther King Jr, and listened to him speak. As a result of this meeting, she co-organized the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that worked to further African-American civil rights and of which Martin Luther King Jr was the first president. She became the Northern Coordinator of the SCLC shortly afterward, beginning her incredible history of civil rights activism.
Perhaps as a result of her anti-apartheid activism, Angelou moved to Accra, Ghana with her son Guy in 1962. While living in Accra, she met and became close friends with Malcom X. She returned to the US in 1965 to help him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a new civil rights organization. Shortly afterward, Malcolm X was assassinated. Angelou was devastated by the loss of her friend, and moved to Hawaii to resume her music career.
But writing was in her blood, and she returned to Los Angeles to focus on it. She worked as a market researcher during this time, and witnessed the Watts Riots in the summer of 1965. In 1967, she returned to New York, and rekindled her friendship with writer James Baldwin.
In 1968, Angelou agreed to organize a march for Martin Luther King Jr, but he was assassinated before the march could become a reality. It was on April 4th; Angelou’s 40th birthday.
Angelou, once again grieving for the loss of a friend and civil rights leader, would embark on an exploration of her own creative genius and indomitable spirit. She was lifted out of depression with the help of James Baldwin, and wrote, produced, and narrated a ten part documentary series for National Educational Television (the precursor for PBS) about the link between blues music and Black Americans’ african roots. It was called “Blacks, Blues, Black!” She also wrote what would go on to become her most famous work; an autobiography titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Published in 1969, this book won international acclaim.
In 1972, Angelou wrote “Georgia, Georgia,” the first produced screenplay by a Black woman. After this, she went on to accomplish more art than most people could hope to achieve in an entire lifetime. She composed music, writing for singer Roberta Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, autobiographies, TV scripts, documentaries, and poetry. She also taught a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. In the 1990s, Angelou participated in the lecture circuit, something she would continue to do into her eighties.
In1993, she recited her poem “In the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and was the first poet to recite at a presidential inauguration in more than 30 years.
In a 1995 interview, Angelou said:
“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, 'I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.' They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, 'Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.' They can't forgive themselves and go on with their lives.”
Her Death and Legacy
Angelou died in her home at the age of 86, on May 28th, 2014. While she had canceled appearances due to poor health, she was still working; writing an autobiography about her experience with world leaders. The legacy she left behind changed American culture forever.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” opened up a new era for female Black writers. Previously, Black women were never permitted to write themselves as the main character in their literature; this award-winning autobiography changed that landscape. It also changed the landscape for all Black memoirists. Her poetry influenced modern hip hop music, including such artists as Common, Kanye West, Tupac Shakur, and Niki Minaj. And though the legacies of her friends Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr may overshadow hers, she helped build those legacies as well.
If there was ever any doubt that creative work can influence the struggle for justice, Angelou’s career put it to rest. She was a musician, a writer, a poet, and a Black activist without peer, and we’re lucky to have had her.
To celebrate the legacy of this incredible woman, we have two beautiful, handcrafted quote necklaces that bear her incredible words. The first says, “If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” This encourages all of us to recognize the strengths granted by our own uniqueness, and to use them to change the world for the better.
The second reads: “The horizon leans forward offering you space to place new steps of change.” This is a line from Angelou’s poem, “In The Pulse of The Morning,” which she recited at the 1993 Presidential inauguration.
We created these pieces to honor Maya Angelou’s incredible spirit and talent, and we’re so happy to get to share them with you.