Dr Maya Angelou
EMMA Lifetime Achievement Award 2002 (Joint Award)
Poet, best-selling author, singer, dancer, producer, director, actress, playwright, civil rights activist, journalist, teacher and mother, Dr Maya Angelou is one of the few people we could all learn something from.
In her own words, there is nothing Maya Angelou cannot do. This ‘Phenomenal Woman’ has touched the hearts and minds of people all over the world. As she tells her friend Dolly McPherson, “The minute someone says I can’t, all of my energy goes up and I say, ‘Yes I can.’ I believe all things are possible for a human being, and I don’t think there is anything in the world I can’t do.” And she’s right, there probably isn’t.
She was 41 when the first of her autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published. The book, which is widely read and taught in schools and universities, was among the first works of literature by an African-American woman to hit the bestsellers lists and was later aired as a television movie. It remains a favourite of Oprah Winfrey’s who has always said she sees Maya as her mentor, mother, sister and friend. Oprah said, “Maya Angelou’s autobiography was the first book I ever read that made me feel my life as a coloured girl growing up in Mississippi deserved validation. I loved it from the opening lines.”
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on 4 April 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was raised by her grandmother from the age of three in Stamps, Arkansas. After five years of being apart from her mother, Maya and her brother were sent back to live with her in St. Louis. Although things started out well, they took a turn for the worse when Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This devastating act of violence caused her to withdraw from normal life and she was sent back to live with her grandmother.
In Brian Lanker’s book on black women who changed America, Maya writes, “I was a mute for five years. I wasn’t cute and I didn’t speak. I don’t know what would have happened to me had I been in an integrated school. In another society, I’m sure I would have been ruled out. But my grandma told me all the time, ‘Sister, Mama don’t care what these people say about you being a moron, being a[n] idiot. Mama don’t care. Mama know, Sister, when you and the good Lord get ready, you’re gonna be a preacher.”’
Perhaps Annie Henderson had foreseen what her granddaughter would become. Maya Angelou was honoured with the EMMAs Lifetime Achievement Award 2002 because she has been a groundbreaker for black women. Her work goes well beyond her award-winning poetry and books. She has written and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including Afro-Americans in the Arts, for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her acting in Roots and also for her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, which was the first documentary to be filmed by a black woman.
In theatre she produced, directed and starred in Cabaret for Freedom in collaboration with Godfrey Cambridge at New York’s Village Gate. She starred in Genet’s The Blacks and adapted Sophocles’ Ajax, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1974. She also wrote and produced a ten-part TV series on African traditions in American life.
Although she began her career in dance and drama, she later married a South African freedom fighter and lived in Cairo where she was Associate Editor of The Arab Observer.
In Ghana she taught at the University of Ghana, and was Feature Editor of The African Review. When she returned to the US she was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year.
During this time, Maya Angelou continued to produce masterpieces including Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1971. In 1975, she received the Ladies Home Journal Woman of the Year Award in communications. She is on the board of the American Film Institute and one of the few female members of the Director’s Guild.
In 1993, at the request of President Clinton, she wrote and read her poem On the Pulse of Morning for his inauguration, becoming only the second poet in US history to do so. She also recited her poem, A Brave and Startling Truth, at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations celebration.
More recently, Maya has been touring the US and abroad, spreading her ‘universal message of hope’. The culmination of her life story, which she began writing more than thirty years ago, comes in the publishing of her sixth autobiography, A Song Flung Up to Heaven. The book is currently on The New York Times Best-Seller List.
A Song Flung Up to Heaven opened as Maya Angelou returned from Africa to the United States to work with Malcolm X. But first she had to journey to California to be reunited with her mother and brother. No sooner had she arrived than she learned Malcolm X had been assassinated. Devastated, she tried to put her life back together, working on the stage in local theatres.
Subsequently, on a trip to New York, she mes Martin Luther King who asked her to become his coordinator in the North, and she visited black churches all over America to help support King’s Poor Peoples March. But once again tragedy struck. King was assassinated, and this time Angelou completely withdrew from the world, unable to deal with this event.
Finally, author James Baldwin forced her out of isolation and insisted she accompany him to a dinner party, where the idea for writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was born, In fact, A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Maya began to write the now famous first sentences of Caged Bird, “What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay...”
Maya insists that A Song Flung Up to Heaven is the last of her autobiographical works but she will continue to write. She once told a Sunday Times Magazine journalist: “Writing really is my life. Thinking about it when I’m not doing it is terribly painful…” An avid Maya Angelou fan says the thing he admires most about her is how ‘consistently excellent’ she is when she writes. Most authors, even Shakespeare, have their really good books and one or two bad ones. But I’ve yet to read anything of hers I have not liked.” Angelou won a Grammy for the narration of the audio book in 2003.