Born on April 4th, 1928, Maya Angelou was a prolific poet, a memoirist, play and screenplay writer. Here are five things to know about the legendary Maya Angelou.
1. Maya was mute for over five years during her childhood.
When Maya was seven years old, she was raped by a family friend and ended up in the hospital. After she told who the rapist was, he was found kicked to death. As a seven-year-old, Maya concluded that she caused the man’s death by saying his name and stopped talking for more than five years.
2. Maya was an avid reader, a habit she developed during her mute years.
When a lady named Mrs. Flowers introduced Maya to a school library, Maya decided to read every book in there. She found that she particularly enjoyed poetry and memorized Edgar Alan Poe’s poems and more than thirty of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as poems by many other authors. In one interview, Maya said she loved Edgar Alan Poe’s poems so much she nicknamed him EAP (pronounced eep).
Noticing Maya’s love for poetry, Mrs. Flowers told Maya that she couldn’t appreciate poetry until she felt it coming across her tongue and over her lips, or until she heard it coming from her own voice. Upon hearing this Maya dissolved into tears feeling as though Mrs. Flowers had taken away her best friend. But poetry eventually helped Maya find her voice once again because in poetry, she found the beauty and positive power in words.
3. Nine words that changed Maya’s life.
When Maya was 22 years old, her mother stopped and said these nine words to her, and she never forgot them. “Maya, you are the greatest woman I ever met.” Immediately after hearing these words, she decided that she should probably quit smoking, drinking and cursing, just in case she was supposed to do something great with her life. Maya never mentioned what happened with the smoking and drinking, but did say that she stopped using profanity from that day forward. She said it is very rare that anyone will ever hear a profane word come from her mouth.
She cautioned that we all must be careful of the words we use or allow to be used in our homes. In one interview she said, “All vulgarity is vulgarity regardless of who it comes from. If you mean to demean a person to make her or him less than whole, it means this person is not worthy of your concern. This is the power of words and she has invited people to leave her house when she hears homophobic, sexist or racist words being used in her home.
4. Maya forgave her mother through the process of writing.
Maya was two when her parents divorced. By the time Maya was three years old, and her brother was four years old they were being shuffled between her mother’s family in St. Louis Missouri and her father’s family in Stamps, Arkansas. They traveled alone, by train.
Maya said her mother was a great mom for young adults, but an awful mother to younger children. One example Maya gave was a story her mother told her about when two-year-old Maya had hit her mother on the leg because her mother told her she couldn’t have something, so she back-handed Maya, sending her flying off of the porch.
In 2013, Maya wrote a book, Mom & Me & Mom. In an interview, Maya explained that she wanted to see her mother apart from herself so she could love her life. She said that once you can love somebody’s life, you can understand their life.
5. Maya wrote memoirs not for their recuperative power but because she liked the literary form.
In an interview, Angelou said about the art of autobiography: “I never thought that I was interested or am interested in autobiography for its recuperative power. I liked the form— the literary form.” She loved the idea of using the first person singular, while always meaning the third person plural in a narrative, much like many of the slave narratives she read.
Happy Birthday Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, NC, but she has left behind many written works of art and a legend that will live on. Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou.
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Dr. Maya Angelou – Power Of Words
Franks, Jill. “Maya Angelou: Overview.” Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote, St. James Press, 1997. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=pwpls_remote&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420000247&it=r&asid=97472c90ef4bed304f7af988a629f32d. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.
Neubauer, Carol E. “An interview with Maya Angelou.” World Literature Criticism, Supplement 1-2: A Selection of Major Authors from Gale’s Literary Criticism Series, edited by Polly Vedder, vol. 1, Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=pwpls_remote&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420010550&it=r&asid=881b3af0be1c8f632f495538e8d839c5. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017. Originally published in The Massachusetts Review, vol. 28, no. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 286-292.