Words: Prachi Rathi
Illustration: Keneilwe Kwanaite

“You may encounter defeats, but you must not be defeated”- Maya Angelou


Maya Angelou’s story is not pretty. It is stark – a representative of its times when being of her gender and color put her at a severe, unfortunate disadvantage in the space of the millions who had already been placed at the very bottom rung of their society. William Shakespeare once said, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. Maya Angelou would fall in the third category of people. An American author, dancer, singer, actress, screenwriter, poet, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou’s journey is capable of inspiring millions. She achieved greatness all over the world, with courage, compassion, confidence and abounding love. The iron lady, who kept her head high, through some brutal challenges that were thrown her way all her life. Born to a poor family in St Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928, Marguerite Annie Johnson was the second child of Mr. Bailey Johnson. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr, gave her the nickname ‘Maya’. Her parents separated when she was three, she was then nourished by her paternal grandmother. A devoted woman, she used to do both, run a general store and nourish the siblings with great vigor.

For the next couple of years that Angelou lived there, her life was filled with joy from going to school, picking cotton, reading books and playing with her brother. But these days were not to last long when her father returned and sent the kids back to their mother in St Louis. It was here that Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She was aged 8. When the perpetrator was released from jail, Angelou’s uncle lynched him to death. The incident left Maya mute for the next five years. A fighter forever though, as her future life would prove, she recovered from the trauma through her teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers. Sharp and bright, at 16 she went on to become the first female conductor in San Francisco’s tramcar system. She was a mother by 17, but she was also past high school, which was a mammoth task for a woman in its day of brash gender and color discrimination. Ensuring the survival of her child and herself was a priority, and it took Angelou through another marriage, many jobs, waiting tables, drugs, even prostitution. As she fought on as a strip club dancer, her talent for moves was finally recognized in 1954 when she got her break in the Porgy and Bess opera, where she toured internationally through 22 countries, her young and creative mind getting exposed to new languages and ideas from Europe.

Image: John J./ Burns Library, Boston College/

Moving on to Egypt in 1961, with her boyfriend and son she started working there as an assistant editor for “The Arab Observer”. Being a black woman with a voice, an opinion and hard-won mettle in an era where colored people were shunned by the society, her job came with a lot of criticism. Yet this never stopped her from fighting for the rights of her community. In 1965, when inequality was at its peak, Maya joined hands with her friend Malcolm X. They formed a new organization, “The Organization of Afro-American Unity.”

Along with black nationalist leaders and many young followers, Angelou became one of the leading lights of the American civil rights movement and continued to be one throughout her life. The dramatic assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 though shattered Angelou, and she returned to New York. But this would not be the end of her struggle to represent her people through her voice. In 1968, Martin Luther King called on Maya to join the Poor People’s March for a month. The idea was to go around America, talk to preachers and try to get them to donate one Sunday’s collection to their march, which was for the disadvantaged, black and white. Maya decided to join but only after her birthday. And there again, fate took another twisted turn. While preparing a meal for her birthday party Maya got a call from her sister.

She asked her to avoid watching TV, listening to the radio, or to pick any calls. After some time, a doorbell rang. As Maya opened the door she found her sister, standing there, devastated. She calmly broke the news, that Martin Luther King has been assassinated. Shocked at the loss of two leaders who she was teaming up with to improve conditions for America, Maya couldn’t take this and soon went into depression. But just like every dark night turns into a beautiful day, Maya started writing for her multivolume autobiography in 1969, starting with ‘I Know Why Caged Bird Sings’ when her friend and fellow writer James Baldwin urged her to. Her book was not only a best seller of its times, but it also received an honorary National Book Award in 2013. Four more volumes were published in the next two decades, full of beautiful words crystallised from experience and pulled out of thin air.

In Angelou’s entire life she never settled, juggling from one job to another or one place to another, with a divine spirit and zest in her eyes, she kept going on. This temperament helped her succeed in life, and she went on to receive the Langston Hughes Medal in 1991, the BET Honors Award for Literary Arts, the Quill Award for Poetry, and a Pulitzer nomination for her book ‘Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie’. A prolific thinker and writer, who did not restrict herself to armchairs or households, but brought it out on the street, not just with written words, but her own voice. She certainly had many words within herself, and she is the mother of so many quotes, used often by feminists and liberals, but seldom with her grace.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Williom J. Clinton Presidential Library

Her most famous quote remains one about herself – one that also incites an instant wish to be a human being like her. “My mission in life is not to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style”, she once said. Well, these aren’t just words spoken by Maya Angelou, but a life principle she never failed to follow.

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