Black History Month Feature:
Maya Angelou Inspiring Artist and Activist
Maya Angelou (image: biography.com)
Black History Month is an annual observance for the remembrance of significant people and events in African-American history. It is celebrated in February in the United States and Canada. Youth for Human Rights International celebrates Black History Month in honor of all of those whose courage and determination helped secure the civil rights millions enjoy today.
With many people unaware of their rights, the question arises: who will make sure human rights are respected? To answer, we can draw inspiration from those who made a difference and helped create the human rights we have today. These humanitarians stood up for human rights because they recognized that peace and progress can never be achieved without them. Each, in a significant way, changed the world.
Maya Angelou is such an inspiration. Her career encompassed a multitude of titles from author, playwright, and poet to stage and screen performer, director, and human rights activist. She is best-known for her autobiographies and a genre known as autobiographical fiction, in which she includes aspects of her personal life in fiction works. Her writings are widely used in schools and universities around the world.
Angelou is an icon of Black culture and her work viewed as a mainstay of African-American culture and is often cited for its role in the forward progress of equal rights.
Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She received a scholarship to San Francisco’s Labor School to study dance and drama and in 1954 she won a role in the opera Porgy and Bess which toured in some 20 countries. She worked closely with Martha Graham, the “mother of modern dance,” and Alvin Ailey, an innovative African-American choreographer and activist whose masterpiece Revelations is considered the most well-known and most-performed dance performance. Her résumé broadened further still in 1957, with her first recorded album Calypso Lady.
In 1958, Angelou moved to New York where she became an influential member of the Harlem Writers Guild, the oldest organization of African-American writers, activists and scholars, and performed in the landmark off-Broadway production of The Blacks by French playwright Jean Genet.
She then moved to Cairo, Egypt as editor of The Arab Observer. She lived in Ghana during the decolonization period, teaching at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, while concurrently working as an editor for The African Review and writing for The Ghanian Times.
During this time abroad, she studied and read intensively, becoming fluent in Spanish, Italian, French, Arabic and Fanti. It was also here that she was introduced to Malcom X. She returned to America in 1964 and helped him build his new Organization of African American Unity, until he was assassinated in 1965.
Angelou next worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an African-American civil rights organization centered on King’s ideologies, which played a large role in the Civil Rights movement. King’s assassination on her birthday in 1968 greatly affected Angelou:
“King continues to have an impact on my life, as he does upon the lives of many people in the world. A dream – an idea – never dies. It might go in or out of fashion, but it remains. So his idea of fair play and justice still impacts upon me. He was a friend of mine, I worked with him... I am trying to be that fair person, that kind person, that generous, courageous person, that loving person that Martin Luther King Jr. was and encouraged us to become.”
Angelou was encouraged by friend and writer James Baldwin to write what became her best-known work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969 and making Angelou known internationally. Her published fiction, nonfiction and poetry include over 30 bestselling works.
She went on to write the script and compose the score for the film Georgia, the first African-American woman to write a script that was filmed. Georgia was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
The list of her accomplishments is extensive and includes television and films—acting parts in Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977 and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice in 1993. She directed Down in the Delta in 1996—her first feature film—and in 2008 composed poetry and narrated the acclaimed documentary The Black Candle.
Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. She has received three Grammy Awards and some 50 honorary degrees. In 1993, she read her poem On the Pulse of the Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, at his request. This was broadcast internationally and made her the first poet to present a poem at a presidential inauguration since 1961, when Robert Frost recited his work at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
From her outstanding achievements in the arts and considerable contribution to the advancement of African-Americans, Maya Angelou has touched those that have come to know her and the inspiring spirit that pervades her creative works.
Youth for Human Rights International is a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to teach youth about human rights and inspire them to become advocates for tolerance and peace. Since its inception, it has grown into a global movement, including hundreds of groups, clubs and chapters around the world.