Maya Angelou: The Escaped Bird

Maya Angelou or Marguerite Annie Johnson (birth name) was a Civil Rights activist, a poet, a writer and a very good singer who deserves to be celebrated during Black History Month.

Angelou lived a long life, 86 years to be exact, but unfortunately her childhood was stripped away from her. She used writing as a means of coping with her traumas, it helped her gain strength and confidence which meant that when her first biography was released (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) she was the very first African American woman to publicly discuss her personal life, from seeing racial discrimination first hand, to being sexually abused.

The repercussions of such an event, resulted in Maya being frightened from speaking out

The Missouri born, Angelou’s, parents separated whilst she was young, so that she spent her infant years with her paternal grandmother before being forced back to her mother. One would hope that with a maternal figure around you, that they would keep you safe and away from danger, however for Maya, this was not the case; she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Maya’s brother killed the man, however, the repercussions of such an event, resulted in Maya being frightened from speaking out for over four years. Reading her autobiography, it becomes obvious that during this period Angelou started noticing the finer details in daily activities and her listening skills improved. She used reading as an escape from the world with the likes of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.

She was not afraid of representing black people; she even became their spokesperson

Throughout her early adulthood, in the early 1960s, she retained a passion for writing and became a feature editor of the African Review during her time in Ghana. However, her skills were not limited to writing alone; Maya enjoyed acting in plays and broadcasting on radios. She was not afraid of representing black people; she even became their spokesperson. It was during this time, through her travels around the world, that she became friends with Malcolm X who inspired her to return back to the US to aid in the Civil Rights Movement for equality, by helping him to set up the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. This was not her only contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, as she was assisting Martin Luther King with a proposed march, which unfortunately did not happen.

Maya lived such a vibrant life in the 1950s and late 60s that she did not start writing properly until the late 1960s. She published her first autobiography in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where she wrote about her childhood. Maya split her autobiography into 7 books which cover different aspects of her life, including giving birth. Her poetry can be described as deep and thought-provoking, so much so, that I have chosen a verse from her poem, ‘And Still I Rise’ (published in 1978).

And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

The verse above is as motivational as it is doom and gloom. Unfortunately, during times of fear and uncertainty, people have a habit of doing hurtful things whether it is verbal or physical, making you feel inadequate or downright upset. However, in the last line there is hope; regardless of what others may say, if you have confidence in yourself and believe in yourself, it really does not matter. Like the infamous Taylor Swift lyrics “the haters are going to hate”. Angelou is saying that let the hatefulness fuel you to being better, like it fuelled her during her participation in the Civil Rights.

The Poem, And Still I Rise is still so relevant to today, that Nicki Minaj recited an emotional rendition of it for the Shining A Light Concert in 2015. The Shining a Light Concert was a concert presented by A&E Network to promote unity and the progress made against racial inequality.

Maya Angelou is an inspiration for not only being a truly phenomenal advocate for women and African Americans during the 1960s inequalities, but as someone who was willing to use her own challenges as a fuel for improving the environment around her. Throughout her life, she taught the importance of having humility; she was willing to help and lift everyone up. She is well-known for helping people discover greatness within them. By having confidence in ourselves, nothing is unachievable.

In 2010, Maya Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama for her work, before she passed away in 2014.

Saira Akhtar

Featured image courtesy of Trending Topics 2019 via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article image courtesy of @mayaangelouquotes via Instagram. No changes were made to this image. 

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