February is Black History Month in the United States, and this year after the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others, the celebration is particularly significant.
We honour the history and achievements of African Americans and the generations who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship rights. We also honour the lives of those gone but never forgotten like George Floyd, who knelt for nine minutes while dying and crying out for help, and whose death resonated across the world.
In the aftermath, I thought of Maya Angelou and how despite it all, her heart would probably still be full of love and hope.
Hope for a movement that had she been alive, she would have supported with the same passion she did when offering her activism in the American civil rights movement.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“, the first piece in her autobiographical series, and a story about strength in the face of adversity became very much relevant again after the death of George Floyd, which like her book, revealed the terrible nature of racist ideology.
The highly successful 1969 memoir about her childhood and young adult years, made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. The book, made her an international star and it continues to be considered her best autobiographical work.
Let’s remember this major literary figure and raw talent. An example of personal growth and achievement despite constant adversity. A woman who suffered the worst crime a person can ever experience, that of being abused in her tender childhood.
However, the famous author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist, rose above it all.
In her own words:
“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet”
Maya went on to leave an important legacy that keeps inspiring generations of people the world over.
At only 41 years old, she had lived a life that was already worthy of an autobiography because of a very difficult childhood.
Born on 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, her parents split up when she was very young, and she and her older brother, were sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas.
It was there, that she experienced racial prejudices and discrimination. She was also a victim of sexual assault.When she was only about 7 years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
As a result of the attack, Angelou’s uncles killed the boyfriend.The then little girl was so shocked and traumatised by the event, that she stopped talking and spent years as a mute.
When she was 16, she gave birth to a son and worked at a number of odd jobs to support herself and the child. She married several times but it was in 1952 when she married a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos, that she decided to take his name. She chose a shorter version of his surname and used it as her professional name .
Years later, when she moved to San Francisco, California, she became the first Black female cable car conductor albeit briefly as she soon won a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School.
By the mid 50’s her career as an actress took off. She went on to be nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away (1973) and an Emmy Award for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977)
She also lived for much of the 60’s in Egypt and Ghana where she worked at the University of Ghana and joined a community of “Revolutionist Returnees” exploring pan-Africanism. Maya Angelou became close friends with human rights activist and Black leader, Malcom X.
Famous collections of Angelou’s poetry include: “And Still I Rise” (1978), which features the much loved poem “Phenomenal Woman”.
She was also the first female inaugural poet and first African American to participate in a recitation for president Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. She recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, which became one of her most famous works.
In Black History Month, let’s dedicate more time to learning about the Black past as for too long the African-American’s contributions to the United Sates progress in the creative arts, science, economy, or humanities have been ignored.
Thinking about the nation’s history from the perspective of the African American community, we will understand why the United States is one of the most thriving nations in the world.