By Felicia Farnsworth
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
This is the opening verse to “Still I Rise,” which fits the poetic mastermind responsible for it. Marguerite Annie Johnson was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her brother, Bailey Jr., gave her the nickname “Maya” meaning “My” or “Mya Sister.”
She decided it was a distinctive name and Maya Angelou became her stage/pen name.
Maya’s childhood was not the greatest. She was raped and abused at the age of eight, soon after she became mute. Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and friend, helped her to find her voice again.
She was also responsible for introducing her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and black female artists like Jessie Faust and Frances Harper.
Had it not been for her period of silence, she may not have found her love for books and literature. She had an extraordinary memory and the ability to observe her surroundings.
Three weeks after finishing school, she gave birth to her son. She went on to learn modern and African dance. She professionally sang and danced to Calypso Music at The Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco.
She made it a personal goal to learn the language of every country she ever visited or lived in, so she can speak to people in their native tongue.
She helped organize “the legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator.
Angelou was known for her music, plays, poems, dances, and movie appearances. When it came time for her to write, she had a “writing ritual” for many years.
She would check into a hotel early in the morning, equipped with legal pads, a bottle of Sherry, a deck of playing cards, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible. The hotel staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls.
She would write while lying on the bed, and in between writings, she would play solitaire. By the afternoon, she would leave the hotel with 10-12 pages of written material.
Along with her creative works of art, she was honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her book, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie and a Tony for her play Look away.
Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86 on May 28, 2014. Her son Guy Johnson stated, “She left this mortal plane with no loss of acuity and no loss in comprehension,” at her memorial service at Wake Forest University.
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.