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Friday, April 4, 2014

Happy 86th Birthday, Maya Angelou

What a life this woman has led! Born Marguerite Ann Johnson, Maya Angelou's bio on Wikipedia describes her as having "published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than fifty years. She has received dozens of awards and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees." Except for family and friends, she prefers to be addressed as Dr. Angelou.

Best known for her poetry and autobiographies, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she is also a film and television producer, playwright, professor, director, dancer and actress (she was in the cast of tv's groundbreaking Roots). She is also a tireless civil rights activist.

She moved to New York City as a young adult (born in St Louis, Missouri, raised in Stamps, Arkansas during the Great Depression). She worked as a cook, madame (oh, yes, my dears, that kind of madame!), cabaret performer and journalist.

I love this story from The Independent: After Maya Angelou returned from her European tour as premier dancer in Porgy and Bess, she let her hair grow "natural", took a job as a nightclub singer, and moved with her son into a bungalow in Hollywood's swank Laurel Canyon. It was June 1958. One morning her voice coach, Frederick "Wilkie" Wilkerson, dropped by. Billie Holiday was in town; he would bring her over if Maya thought she could handle it. "What's to handle?" Angelou asked. "She's a woman. I'm a woman."

At first Angelou found her guest hostile, her conversation a melee of sarcasm and obscenities. But after lunch - fried chicken, rice, Arkansas gravy - Holiday softened. Maya was a nice lady, and a good cook, too, she said. When Wilkerson got up to leave, she opted to stay. Angelou felt herself being watched. "You a square, ain't you?" Holiday said. Angelou admitted that she was....

Holiday spent five days with Angelou, and not until the end did she revert to her angry self. On the last evening she was abusive to [Angelou's son]; she accompanied Maya to the nightclub and shouted her off the stage. Lady Day was some complicated woman. At parting she left Angelou with a two-edged prophecy: "You're going to be famous," she said. "But it won't be for singing."


Twice married (once to Germaine Greer's ex-husband), Dr Angelou has been friends with Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, has acted with James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and Alfre Woodard (to name just a few), and notably recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning" at the 1991 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to recite at an American Presidential inauguration since 1961, when Robert Frost appeared at President Kennedy's. In 2011, she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

Maya Angelou has won a Grammy (for "spoken word" recording) and has been nominated for a Nobel Prize and a Tony as well. We honor this woman and her lifetime of incredible achievements, born April 4, 1928. Happy Birthday, Dr. Maya Angelou!

Below, Maya sings calypso:







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