#SheWhoShines 4. Maya Angelou - The Woman Who Found Her Voice And Spoke For Millions

Maya Angelou was an African-American poet, award-winning author, civil rights activist, educator and a spokesperson for black people and women. Maya worked with Martin Luther-King as a civil rights activist until his assassination. She was awarded over 50 honorary degrees, and was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom be President Obama who said that Angelou had "spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya."

Less well known are Maya’s other lives: as a singer; as a composer; as a dancer in Porgy and Bess; as a TV script and documentary writer; as a film director and much more. She is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences, throwing a light on racial discrimination and inequality. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17, and brought her international recognition.

Maya was born as Marguerite Johnson in St Louis, Missouri in 1928. Maya’s father sent her and her brother, Bailey, to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, after her parent’s tremulous relationship ended. She was just three years old. She spent most of her childhood years with her grandmother, a pious and kind woman who ran a general store, and was a major influence and inspiration in Maya’s life. 

When Maya was 8, and briefly living with her mother in St. Louis, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. He threatened to kill her and her brother, if she spoke out.  She did, however, tell her brother who then told the family. The man was convicted and then released after only one day in prison. Four days after his release, he was found beaten to death.

Maya believed she had caused the killing because she had spoken out about the rape. She refused to speak for nearly five years, and stated, "
I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone...”
During this period of silence Maya developed an incredible memory. She had the ability to quietly observe the world around her, and her insatiable appetite for books and literature grew. She was already a bright child and this period accelerated her mental ability.

In 1944, 16 year old Maya gave birth to a son. From this point, she would work jobs to support herself and her child, whilst still feeling the passion for music, dance and poetry. 8 years later, she married Anastasios Angelopulos, a Greek sailor from whom she took the name ‘Angelou’ and blended it with her childhood nickname, ‘Maya’.

In the 50’s and 60’s, Maya pursued work in drama, and it wasn’t until 1969 when she began to write about her life experiences, with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This book made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. Maya's autobiographies set an example for not only other female writers, but also African-American autobiography as a whole.

Through the writing of her books, honesty about her past, the eloquence and wisdom with which she writes, Maya became recognized and highly respected.  She was a true trail blazer, and one of the most influential voices of our time.

To write about Maya Angelou in 500 words and to call it ‘her life’ would be a disservice to a truly brilliant, wise, intelligent, and compassionate woman, therefore we would highly encourage you to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, or her other biographies, to learn more about her life.

“To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn't have to go through half the things she has.” - Guardian writer Gary Younge, 2009


Stay tuned for the stories of 6 more incredible women, and at the end of this week (12.02.16) we'll be opening the votes to find out whose story you find the most inspiring.

The 3 women with the highest amount of votes will have their names beautifully etched on our Limited Edition white candles for International Women's Day. 

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