Happy 89th birthday Dr. Maya Angelou!

In celebration of April being Black Women’s History Month, National Poetry Month and the month of Dr. Angelou’s birthday, I would like to pay tribute to her by sharing some interesting facts about Dr. Angelou and how she broke down barriers as a black woman, trail blazed in the publishing industry and dedicated her life to activism.

As a black woman & activist:

  • At the age of 14, she was awarded a scholarship to study dance/drama at the California Labor School; she dropped out of school and eventually became San Francisco's first female African-American cable car conductor.
  • She never went to college but has received more than 50 honorary degrees.
  • She was the first black woman director and producer for 20th Century Fox.
  • Dr. Angelou’s screenplay, “Georgia, Georgia,” was the first original script by a black woman to be produced as a movie.
  • She was an entrepreneur, to say the least. She recorded an album (“Miss Calypso”), acted in an Off- broadway show (“The Blacks”), directed her first feature film (“Down in the Delta”), taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama and published two cooking books.
  • She won three Grammy Awards and was twice nominated for a Tony award for acting: once for her Broadway debut in “Look Away” and again for her performance in “Roots.”
  • She played an integral role in the Civil Rights movement and helped Dr. Martin Luther King as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
  • She was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.
  • What I admire most: Dr. Angelou was not one to shy away from speaking about her experiences, good and bad- the painful, traumatic ones she experienced as a young girl and then as a teen mother. She was quoted saying, “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, 'I never did anything wrong… I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.' They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations… they can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives." 

As a poet, author & educator:

  • Dr. Angelou’s 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings- her first of seven autobiographies- made literary history as the first non-fiction bestseller by an African-American woman.
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was third on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990–2000 and was sixth on the same list from 2000–2009.
  • She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.
  • She taught classes in philosophy, ethics, theology, theatre, writing, and science.
  • She recited her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, making her the second poet to do so. Robert Frost was the first at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
  • In 1995, Dr. Angelou was praised for remaining on The New York Times' paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years—the longest-running record in the chart's history.
  • Fun fact: Dr. Angelou maintained the same writing process from the first book she wrote. She would stay in a local hotel room, have all of the pictures removed from the walls and hand write her stories on legal paper.

And last but not least, here’s one of my favorite poems, which I believe is always relevant regardless of time, place or person.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

 

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

 

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own.

 

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

 

Image via AP/ Charles Dharapak