Maya Angelou has been the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1991. How she got there is quite a story.
A noted poet, novelist, educator and civil rights activist. Maya was born in 1928 in St. Louis. The events of Maya’s first 17 years were compiled into her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It tells a tale that we know all too well. We read about it every day. At 8 years of age, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother about it, and he told the rest of their family. At his trial, the rapist was found guilty, but was jailed for only one day. However, justice was done. Four days after his release, he was killed, probably by Maya’s uncles. His death caused Maya to become mute for five years. She said her voice had made him die, and she was afraid to talk and have someone else die. During this time she developed her extraordinary memory, and her love for books.
As a teenager, Maya won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. She dropped out, and at the age of 14 became the first black woman to be a conductor on a San Francisco cable car. She eventually finished high school and gave birth to her son, Gary, three weeks later.
Her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from ages 17 -19. In it, she depicts a single mother’s slide down the social ladder into a life of poverty and crime. She tells how she worked as “the front woman-business manager for prostitutes.” She also was a waitress and cook, and a prostitute. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations and cities as she attempted to raise her son without the benefit of job training or advanced education.
Thanks to her natural talent and strong will, she eventually had an opportunity to get back into the arts. In 1954 she toured Europe with an opera featuring Porgy and Bess. She later studied with Martha Graham’s modern dance studio. In 1957 she recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, a copy of which is on display at the Museum. The next year she joined the Harlem (New York) Writers’ Guild.
To become the editor of The Arabic Observer magazine, Maya moved to Cairo, Egypt in 1960. A year later, she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Dance. Maya speaks French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic, and Fanti from West Africa. She met and became close friends with Malcom X while he was touring Africa. In 1964, back in the States, Maya helped Malcolm X start his Organization of African American Unity. After Malcom X’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Maya to become the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King was assassinated on Maya’s birthday in 1968.
Beginning with the early 1970’s, Maya has been a writer, an actress, a director, and an educator. She wrote the script and the score for Georgia, Georgia in 1972. The script was the first by an black woman to be made into a film. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She has written over 30 bestselling volumes of verse, fiction and nonfiction. Maya has received three Grammys, and has over 30 honorary degrees from universities. She could live anywhere, and chose Winston-Salem, N.C., as her home.
When asked in an interview with the Academy of Achievement to compare Dr. King with Malcolm X, she said that they were more alike than different. Dr. King had been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the concept of nonviolent struggle. Malcolm X had been influenced by Black Muslims and had lived in the streets and prison. But they both wanted the best for their people. Maya said Malcolm X changed while in Africa, and told her he was going back to the States to say that he no longer believed all whites were “blue-eyed devils.” She admired his courage when he had changed and was willing to say it.
When asked about her thoughts on so many poor black single women giving birth when they haven’t completed their education, she said don’t do it. Don’t have a child when you’re too young, or not married.