Highlighting Author and Activist Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou speaking at Washington University in St Louis, April 1, 1981. Washington University Archives Photographic Services Collection, Series 7, 81-153A-19a.

“While you’re in this fabulous institution, Washington University, I would encourage all of you – black and white, Asians and Hispanics, native Americans – to avail yourselves of the library. Study…learn some of the black American literature. It will stand you in good stead in years to come.” –Maya Angelou, speaking at the Washington University in St Louis Assembly Series, April 1, 1981

Continuing in our celebration of Women’s History Month, today we are highlighting one of the greatest female poets and memoirists of the twentieth century, Maya Angelou.

Growing Up in St Louis and Stamps

Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 right here in St. Louis, where she lived in a brick home on Hickory Street (now an official city landmark) until she was sent to live with her grandparents in Stamps, Arkansas at the age of three. Several years later, Angelou and her brother returned to St Louis to live with their mother for a short period of time, during which Angelou underwent a traumatic experience that would play a significant role in her development as both a person and an artist.

In her earliest and most famous book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recounts being raped by her mother’s boyfriend in St. Louis when she was only eight years old. She testified against him in court, and he was found beaten to death shortly afterward. Angelou and her brother then returned to their grandparents in Stamps, where Angelou remained mute for five years, feeling that her voice had caused her rapist to be murdered.

Still from Maya Angelou’s April 11, 1992 interview for The Great Depression series. Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection.

In a 1992 interview conducted for Henry Hampton’s PBS documentary series The Great Depression, Angelou describes growing up in Stamps in the 1930s, where her grandmother’s store served as the secular center of a thriving black community. In this interview, which you can view in its entirety through Washington University’s digital project, The Great Depression Interviews, she talks extensively of segregation in the state, joking, “As a child I was certain that whitefolks didn’t have innards…That was my belief, they seemed so different.” Although she speaks positively of the school she attended and the encouragement she received from her African American community, she was also angered by the discrepancy in resources that the white schools and her school were receiving. She states, “I had never seen a new book until Mrs. Flowers brought books from the white school for me to read. The slick pages, I couldn’t believe it, and that’s when I think my first anger, real anger at the depressive and the oppressive system began.”

Angelou, Malcolm X, and the Pan-African Movement

A letter from Maya Angelou to Henry Hampton, thanking him for his documentary The Eyes on the Prize. Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection.

Before she became a writer, Angelou was an activist known for her participation in the pan-African and civil rights movements, in which she worked closely with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Washington University Libraries’ Henry Hampton Collection has the film and transcript of a second interview she gave to Blackside and ROJA Productions for the documentary Malcolm X: Make it Plain. Angelou first met Malcolm X after seeking his advice about a protest at the United Nations over the assassination of Prime Minister Lumumba of the newly independent Republic of the Congo, and she later spent time with him in Ghana. In the interview, she describes Malcolm as being like a brother to her and advising her on her career, relationships, and the raising of her son. She notes a particularly poignant word of advice he gave her when they were in Africa together, and the influence it had on her career:

“He talked to me and reminded me that we were a people in process and that we needed to be able to accept each other on whatever level we met each other. Not to be ready to criticize, rather to be ready to help the other person to grow. I took that into myself, not just into my mind, I believe I have ingested that and it is a part of the muscle and the marrow in my bones. One of the reasons I have access to the young people who seem to love me and to the old people who say, who show they love me, and to rich and poor blacks, and to literate and illiterate blacks, one of the reasons I have access to their hearts, is I listened to Malcolm X when he taught me that my people need everybody. We cannot lose, we cannot afford to lose one person.”

A Late but Prolific Literary Career

Maya Angelou signing copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and And Still I Rise at Washington University, April 1, 1981. Washington University Archives Photographic Services Collection, Series 7, 81-153-29.

Angelou had a number of careers as a cook, a dancer, a journalist, and even an early cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess. Although Angelou is perhaps best known as an author, she did not publish her first memoir,  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, until she was in her early forties. After its success, Angelou would go on to write six more autobiographies and over a dozen books of poetry, as well as several essay compilations, plays, television shows, films, children’s books, and even two cookbooks. Her spoken word albums won her three Grammys, she has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and has been granted over 50 honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You can hear Angelou reading from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at the end of her interview for The Great Depression.

Visiting Wash U

Angelou visited Wash U twice in the 1980s, once as an assembly series speaker (April 1, 1981) and another time to give a reading and commentary through the Student Union (Feb 8, 1984). Recordings of these talks can be found in the Washington University Archives Office of Public Affairs, Assembly Series Lectures collection.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.