- Wednesday | January 27, 2021
- All Day
Portrayed by Becky Stone
Maya Angelou was a woman of words: she was named and renamed, she lived with and without words, she was provoked by and a provoker through words, she was a crafter of and a woman redeemed by words. She opened herself to the world through words – written, spoken, sung – and revealed herself to all who were willing to wrestle with her thoughts and language.
Rise up and sing as poet Maya Angelou gives voice to the caged bird inside us all. From the quintessential Everywoman (author of over 20 books, activist, poet, professor, film director and mother) hear startling truths that have effected all.
Marguerite Johnson was the second child born from a marriage that was headed for divorce. By the age of seven, Marguerite and her older brother, Bailey, had lived with their parents, their paternal grandmother, and were back again with their mother and her family. When Marguerite was eight, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. Traumatized, Marguerite shared what had happened only with her brother, Bailey. It was Bailey who told the family. The criminal was arrested and tried. Marguerite testified and during her testimony she told a lie that haunted her. Her mother’s former boyfriend was found guilty and sentenced to a year and a day. However, he was released that afternoon. That evening he was found kicked and bludgeoned to death. Marguerite’s 8-year-old mind reasoned that her words had led to his death. Her words could kill without her intention. So, she stopped speaking to everyone except Bailey.
Not speaking did not mean that she stopped growing, developing, and learning. Marguerite listened, observed, and read, and memorized. She read the great literature of Western civilization. She read powerful words by African-American authors. She read and memorized Shakespeare plays and sonnets, the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson. In spite of all opposition to this self-imposed silence, Marguerite retreated into the safe haven of words for almost 5 years.
She credits Bertha Flowers with motivating her to use her voice again. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya calls Bertha Flowers “the aristocrat of black Stamps.” Marguerite visited Mrs. Flowers regularly to hear her read poetry and prose out loud. Suddenly, the printed word had more than just meaning. It had flesh, sound, beauty. Marguerite realized that she could bring beauty, not death, into the world through words. The great literary works of the world were old friends to her. So, when she spoke again, she had the tools with which to speak her mind. Maya’s journey with writing words had begun.
It was Bailey who dubbed Marguerite “Maya.” He called her “My Sister.” Over time, it evolved into “Mya Sister” and was shortened to “Maya” as a family nickname. The rest of the world still called her Marguerite or Rita. It was Rita Johnson who had a singing and dancing career as “Miss Calypso.” She was known as Rita Johnson even after marrying Tosh Angelopoulos. But when some producers insisted that she come up with a stage name, “Maya Angelou” was born. Can’t you hear it? “Please welcome, Maya Angelou – Miss Calypso!” – much better than Rita Johnson.
Maya sang, danced, and acted. But in private she would stretch across her bed and write and re-write words in pencil on yellow legal pads until they were right. She wrote journals, prose, poetry, lyrics, plays, and screenplays. She made movies, television shows, and records. She shared her life, her mistakes, her wisdom, her black American experience. She eventually lectured all over the world. When you heard her you could tell that language was precious and powerful to her. She caressed the words she spoke and made them sing. She filled them, as she matured, with love. The young victim who thought her words were evil grew into a woman who used the power of words to transform.
1928 – Born in St Louis, MO
1935 – Raped; began almost 5 years of not speaking
1945 – Graduated high school and gave birth to her only son
1951 – Married Tosh Angelopoulos (Div. 1954), the name from which Angelou is derived
1954-55 – Toured Europe and North Africa in Porgy and Bess as “Ruby”
1958 – Moved to New York City, member Harlem Writers Guild
1960 – Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Council
1961 – Lives in Cairo, then Ghana with Visumzi Make, South African activist
1970 – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” published, first of 7 autobiographies
1972 – Pulitzer Prize nomination for “Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie”, poetry
1982 – Becomes the first lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University
1993 – Wrote and recited “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s Inauguration
2011 – Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
2014 – Dies of heart failure in Winston-Salem, NC
About her nearly 5 years of not speaking:
“Now to show you how out of evil there can come good: In those 5 years I read every book in the black school library, I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, I memorized Shakespeare – whole plays, 50 sonnets. I memorized Edgar Alan Poe – all the poetry, never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupasant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling. It was a catholic kind or reading and catholic kind of story. When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say and many ways in which to say what I had to say.”
“Please read. Because all the books are gifts from one generation to the next to encourage that generation to survive. And to do better than that – to thrive. And to do better than that – to thrive with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
Maya’s last tweet: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Gather Together in My Name; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman; All Good’s Children Need Traveling Shoes; A Song Flung Up to Heaven; Mom, Me & Mom; Themes.
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie; On Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit Me Well; And Still I Rise; Shaker Why Don’t You Sing? Mow Sheba Sings the Song; I Shall Not be Moved; On the Pulse of Morning; The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou; Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women; A Brave and Startling Truth; Celebrations; Rituals of peace and Prayer; We Had Him; Miss Calypso.