Shortly after experiencing incredibly traumatic childhood abuse, Maya Angelou stopped speaking — she became, essentially, a mute. For nearly five years, she didn't speak, save a few times with her brother Bailey. Angelou discusses that trauma and how she found her voice again in her 1969 bestselling memoir, "I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings."
During that time, when Maya was silent, she was bullied terribly. Her paternal grandmother would tell her that despite what others thought of her, that she knew that Maya would grow up to become a great teacher, one that would teach all over the world.
With her grandmother, brother Bailey, and neighbor Bertha Flowers' love and patience, Maya Angelou finally broke her silence. Over the next decade+, Ms. Angelou would become a dancer, singer, and stage actress who toured Europe with her theatre company. A polyglot, she absorbed the languages of places she visited. Maya was a recording artist, releasing an album of Calypso music in the late 1950s. She was also a mother, having given birth to her son Guy when she was a teenager. In 1959, at the urging of novelist John Oliver Killens, she settled in New York to focus on her writing.
During her time in New York, Maya Angelou became deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement after attending a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Together with John Oliver Killens, she organized the Cabaret for Freedom. She would become both a fundraiser and the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a Black Civil Rights organization led by Dr. King.
In 1961, after meeting and falling in love with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, Angelou would move herself and her son to Cairo to live with Make. When their relationship later ended, Maya and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, so that Guy could attend college.
In Ghana, Maya would meet and become close to Malcolm X. In 1965, he asked her to move back to the United States to help build a new civil rights organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She didn't hesitate. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated soon after she'd arrived.
The next few years were no less tragic. She had settled in Los Angeles after Malcolm X's death. There, she witnessed the Watts' riots that took place over the course of 6-days following the attempted arrest of a young Black man by police. To end the riots, the government called in 14,000 members of the California National Guard. By the time it was over, 34 people were dead.
Two years later, in 1968, her good friend Dr. King would reach out to her and ask her to organize a march. She agreed but needed to postpone the date. That march never happened as he was assassinated soon after, on Maya's 40th birthday.
"All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated."
She was despondent, but instead of silencing herself, she channeled that grief into momentous creativity. By the end of 1968, she had written, produced, and narrated a ten-part docuseries for National Educational Television, entitled Blacks, Blues, Black! The series delved into the connection between blues music and Black Americans' African heritage. The next year she would publish the first of her seven memoirs, and the one that would get her international recognition and acclaim; "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."
Maya Angelou's grandmother just knew, back in the late 1930s, that eventually, Maya would teach. Her grandmother must have been saying, "I told you so," when in 1991, Wake Forest University offered her the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She accepted and became one of only a few full-time Black professors teaching at the Southern university. Her courses were a mix of that which she was most passionate about; philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing.
Maya Angelou would receive over 50 honorary degrees in her lifetime. She won three Grammy's, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations, and three highly distinguished honors: Spingarn Medal (1994), the National Medal of Arts (2000), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2011).
She donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in 2010. This gift included over 340 boxes of documents — including handwritten notes for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and personal and professional correspondence with writers Baldwin, Marshall Davis, Mari Evans, Hoyt Fuller, Rosa Guy, Chester Himes, Dudley Randall, Sarah E. Wright; human rights activist Malcolm X, photographer Gordon Parks, jazz singer Abby Lincoln; her longtime editor Robert Loomis, and others.
Maya Angelou's vocal style is storytelling genius. She weaved worlds with the way she used her voice to take the listener on a journey, whether speaking or singing. She sounds like an ancestral relative, guiding our way while inspiring us to push through unexplored areas of the world and our own minds. Her vocal style was soft, but it carried the world's weight with it.
Have you ever watched a pre-recorded seminar and realized half-way in that you hadn't been listening for a significant amount of time? It wasn't the material, per se, but it was because the instructor was NOT an engaging speaker? Or worse, they used a generic text-to-speech voice to narrate the class, which got your attention for the wrong reasons. What if that seminar could be narrated by someone who had similar voice characteristics to Maya Angelou?!
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