February has been designated as Black History Month. Teachers have a unique opportunity, through this series, to inform their students about outstanding black Americans who have accomplished much in their lives and are considered role models. In this article, we salute Maya Angelou!
Born Marguerite Johnson in 1928, Maya Angelou spent her formative years shuttling between St. Louis, Missouri, a tiny, totally segregated town in Arkansas, and San Francisco, where she realized the ambition of becoming that city’s first black street car conductor.
During the 1950s, she studied dancing with Pearl Primus in New York, later appearing as a nightclub singer in New York and San Francisco. She worked as an editor for The Arab Observer, and English language weekly published in Cairo; lived in Accra, Ghana, where under the black nationalist regime of Kwame Nkrumah she taught music and drama; and studied cinematography in Sweden.
She became a national celebrity in 1970 with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, which detailed her encounters with southern racism and childhood rape. In 1971, she produced Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die: The Poetry of Maya Angelou; in 1975, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well; in 1979, And Still I Rise; and in 1983, Shaker Why Don’t you Sing? In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy award for her portrayal of Nyo Boto in the television adaptation of the best-selling novel Roots.
Three more volumes of her autobiography were published: Gather Together in My Name (1974); Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976); and The Heart of a Woman (1981). In 1986, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes was published. Angelou’s other works include Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship, Now, Sheba Sings the Song, and, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.
On January 20, 1993, Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Angelou was the first black inaugural poet.
1. Find out more about Maya Angelou – use the Internet or check out a book at the library on her life. What has she done since 1993 when she participated in President Clinton’s inauguration?
2. Maya Angelou’s works are enjoyed by people of all ages, male and female. She appeals to a wide audience in her stories and poems which reflect life as she sees it from her own experience and from her travels. Look through a magazine or your daily newspaper for an interesting photo of people, places, or things. Cut out the photo and discard the caption. Study the photo and use your imagination to describe what is happening. How well do you think the people in the photo know and understand each other? What might have taken place before or after the picture was taken? In “Maya Angelou style,” write a short story or poem about the picture.