Distinctly referred to as “a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture,” Maya Angelou had a deep understanding of blackness and gave people the freedom to think about their history in a way they had never had before
She was born as Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4 April 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, but her elder brother called her “My” or “Maya”. When she was three and her brother four, their parents divorced and they were sent, alone by train, the harshly segregated Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother (Momma), who owned a general store. They moved back and forth between Stamps and St. Louis throughout their formative years. As an African American, Maya experienced racial prejudices and discrimination in Arkansas and was devastated when she was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend while on a visit to St. Louis.
She told her brother, who informed the rest of their family. The man was found guilty and was jailed, for only one day. Four days after his release, he was beaten to death, probably by her uncles
Believing that she had caused the man’s death by uttering his name, and frightened by the power of her own tongue, she refused to speak for the following five years
“I thought, my voice killed him;” she said, “I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
Later Momma decided to protect her grandchildren from the dangers of racism in Stamps and sent them to their mother in San Francisco, where Maya attended High School and studied dance and drama.
While still at high school she became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She wanted that position so much because she loved their uniforms. Her mother encouraged her to get that job but warned her that, if she wanted her “dream job,” she would need to arrive earlier and work harder than anyone else.
She completed school when she was seventeen and three weeks after graduating, she gave birth to her only son, Clyde (who later changed his name into Guy Johnson)
On the advice of her brother, she had hidden her pregnancy from her family in order to be able to graduate from high school.
To be continued…