Friday, April 3, 2015

Maya Angelou was Born - April 4, 1928

This week (April 3- 9) in literary history – The ACLU announced that it would defend Allen Ginsberg’s Howl against obscenity charges (April 3, 1955); Maya Angelou was born (April 4, 1928); Charles Darwin sent first three chapters of Origin of Species to publisher (April 5, 1859); Oscar Wilde was arrested (April 6, 1895); William Wordsworth was born (April 7, 1770); Barbara Kingsolver was born (April 8, 1955); Mark Twain received his steamboat pilot’s license (April 9, 1859).

Highlighted story of the week –

On April 4, 1928, poet and novelist Maya Angelou (Marguerite Johnson) was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she and her brother went to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. When she was eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she revealed what happened, her uncles kicked the culprit to death. Frightened by the power of her own tongue, Angelou chose not to speak for the next five years.

From this quiet beginning emerged a young woman who sang, danced, and recorded poetry. After moving to San Francisco with her mother and brother in 1940, Angelou began taking dance lessons, eventually auditioning for professional theater. However, her plans were put on hold when she had a son at age 16. She moved to San Diego, worked as a nightclub waitress, tangled with drugs and prostitution and danced in a strip club. Ironically, the strip club saved her career: She was discovered there by a theater group.

She auditioned for an international tour of Porgy and Bess and won a role. From 1954 to ’55, she toured 22 countries. In 1959, she moved to New York, became friends with prominent Harlem writers, and got involved with the civil rights movement. In 1961, she moved to Egypt with a boyfriend and edited for the Arab Observer. After leaving her boyfriend, she headed to Ghana, where a car accident severely injured her son. While caring for him in Ghana, she took a job at the African Review, where she stayed for several years. Her writing and personal development flourished under the African cultural renaissance that was taking place.

When she returned to the U.S., she began publishing her multivolume autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Four more volumes appeared during the next two decades, as well as several books of poetry. In 1981, Angelou was appointed Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. She has been nominated for several important awards and read a poem written for the occasion at President Clinton’s inauguration. Angelou died on May 28, 2014 and her remains were cremated and scattered at an unknown location.

Check back every Friday for a new installment of “This Week in Literary History.”

Michael Thomas Barry is the author of six nonfiction books that include Literary Legends of the British Isles and America’s Literary Legends. Visit his website for more information. His books can be purchased from Amazon through the following links:

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