WBW Honors: Maya Angelou

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One of the most astounding voices in African-American literature, Maya Angelou is heralded for her literary prowess and activism. Working alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou was a profound figure in the Civil Rights Movement, and was the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced. The Grammy Award-winning poet is an icon that continues to motivate and inspire. Her accomplishments and voice have moved people beyond boundaries of race and gender, setting the standard for figures like Barack Obama.

She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. When she was a 3-year-old Angelou’s parent divorced and sent her to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Living in the South, she endured legally enforced racial discrimination on a daily basis, which would later influence her writing. Angelou attended Mission High School and fought to overcome a harrowing childhood.

She followed a less traditional route becoming a teenage mother and exploring various jobs from a cook to a madam at a brothel. Angelou’s first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” recounts the first 16 years of her life and is the first of her autobiographies.
While her poetry addresses social and political issues pertinent to African-Americans, Angelou has continuously transcended racial lines and is no stranger to the political stage. President Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and she was invited to serve on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman by President Carter. In 1993, Bill Clinton asked her to compose a poem to recite at his inauguration. She wrote, “On the Pulse of the Morning.” Angelou was the second person to ever produce a body of work for an inauguration.

Angelou was awarded The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans Award and received a fellowship from Yale University. In August 2006, she received the Mother Teresa Award. The prolific Angelou has produced plays, composed music for movies and written a number of autobiographies. She’s written riveting poetry, countless short stories and articles, and continues to lecture at universities throughout the country. And as a powerful elder with roots in the Civil Rights movement and personal ties to the two most iconic Black leaders of the 1960s, Maya Angelou can rightly claim a sweet piece of Barack Obama’s electoral victory and presidential inauguration as hers.

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