An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Maya Angelou

Jan 10, 2019 by

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” -Maya Angelou

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. In the realm of poetry writing, one modern American woman seems to stand out: Maya Angelou. What is it about her words, her emotions and her images that seem to strike a chord in us all?

On January 20, 1993, Maya Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first presidential inauguration. In it, she described the process by which the United States came into being, using metaphors from Nature to illustrate her points. Robert Frost, the first person to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration in January of 1961, had used the same theme, but Angelou differed from him through her frank acknowledgement that the nation had a number of mistakes on its path towards greatness. This recitation made a large segment of the American population aware of her, and sparked an interest in her other literary works.

It came as a surprise to many that Angelou had published her first book of poetry 20 years earlier, and had produced many works of both poetry and prose in her lifetime. The accolades that she received for her recitation at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration thus helped to bring attention to an important, but underappreciated, literary figure.

2. Where was she born? Often we get clues as to factors that contribute to greatness from her early years.

The woman we know today as Maya Angelou was given the name Marguerite Annie Johnson upon her birth in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. Instead of calling her Marguerite, he brother called her “My,” which soon became Maya.” Her parents separated in 1931, and she went to live with her maternal grandmother in Arkansas. A few years later, her father took her back to her mother in St. Louis, where her mother’s boyfriend soon raped her.

This traumatic experience caused her to become mute for five years. After her traumatic experience, her father moved her back to Arkansas. There, a teacher exposed her to a wide range of literary works, and she gradually regained her ability to speak. When she turned 14, she moved with her mother to Oakland, California.

While there, she attended the California Labor School, graduating at the age of 17.

3. What were some of her first endeavors?

Interestingly, she got her first job at the age of 16, when she became the first African-American woman to become a conductor on a San Francisco cable car. Eventually, she left that position, bore a son at the age of 17, and married a man named Tosh Angelos. She then began taking modern dance classes, and soon became a professional entertainer. Soon, she began to sing Calypso music, and decided to change her name to Maya Angelou. In 1957, she released an album of Calypso music, and had a role in the movie “Calypso Heat Wave.”

Two years later, a writer encouraged her to pursue that avocation, and she moved to New York to develop her literary talents. While there, she became involved in the Civil Rights movement, and started a relationship with a South African activist. She moved with him to Africa, and during her time there she met Malcolm X during one of his pilgrimages there. He convinced her to return to the United States to help him with his Civil Rights campaign in 1965.

Once back in the country, a conversation with the author James Baldwin and the cartoonist Jules Feiffer motivated her to write her autobiography in 1969. Titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this book—although controversial then and now for its treatment of sensitive subjects—made her famous. Two years later, her first book of poetry earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination. These two accomplishments established her reputation as a literary giant.

4. What were some of her greatest contributions?

As we have already seen, by the age of 43 Maya Angelou had achieved a great deal of success in a number of fields. As it turned out, she had many other achievements in a wide variety of fields still ahead of her.

In 1973, for example, she earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the play Look Away. In 1998, she directed a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, and she wrote the sound track for a number of movies. After her recitation of “On the Pulse of Morning,” she made a recording of the poem, and won a Grammy for it in 1995. The Hallmark Corporation asked her to create a line of products for the company in 2000, a venture that proved commercially successful.

Few Americans, male or female, have achieved the level of success in such a wide variety of areas as Maya Angelou did in her lifetime.Her later years: what were they like?

Throughout her lifetime, Maya Angelou remained actively engaged in the pursuits that had made her famous. Notably, in 2008 she campaigned for Barack Obama during his presidential campaign, and in 2013 she wrote her seventh autobiographical novel.

Having received an appointment as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in 1981, she continued to teach classes until 2011. She planned to teach another course at Wake Forest in the fall of 2014, but passed away earlier that year.

5. What have I neglected to ask?

While most critics praised her work, some felt that Maya Angelou’s fame came from her dramatic recitations rather than because of the literary merit of her works. In response, she quoted the French author Honorè de Balzac by saying “I write for money.” Others, however, have spoken in her defense.

Most notably, the writer Gary Younge asserted that Angelou had “merged her various talents into a kind of performance art—issuing a message of personal and social uplift by blending poetry, song and conversation.” This seems to be a very fitting summary of a truly extraordinary American life.

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