For those unfamiliar with the exceptional poet/playwright Maya Angelou, the title of this piece may lead to speculation that her life was full of love and humanity -- when nothing could be further from the truth. She encountered immeasurable hardships and obstacles in her life, the likes of which would have driven many to give up on the belief that there is any love or humanity to be found anywhere. The bestselling author of the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, learned the difficult way how to exercise her vocal cords and it took years of determination to unleash her unique voice upon the world.

Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou was only three when her parents divorced and she -- along with her brother Bailey -- was sent to live with her grandmother in segregated Arkansas. And although her grandmother was very loving and instilled pride in her through religion, Angelou could not escape the blatant racism of her environment. She knew what it felt like to wear old, weathered clothes given away by white women; the confusion and shame of being denied treatment by white professionals. Similar to the little black girl in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Angelou used to wish she would wake up with blond hair and be white because life would be so much easier that way.

After five years in Arkansas she and her brother were returned to their mother in St. Louis. If life seemed difficult before, it only grew worse when eight-year-old Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend. She had to testify at the trial and soon after her rapist was found beaten to death in an alley. Believing that her words were somehow connected to his death Angelou became so traumatized that she refused to speak to anyone except Bailey. She was deemed impossible to handle and sent back to live her grandmother. It was in fact through her grandmother and a woman named Mrs. Flowers -- who encouraged her to pursue reading; writing and music - that Angelou found her way back to speaking after over four years of silence. Then once again, she and Bailey were shuttled back to her mother now living in San Francisco. Angelou never had a safe, peaceful place to live after leaving her grandmother. She went from her mother to living in a trailer with her father and his girlfriend to living in abandoned cars. Amazingly, in the face of all her strife she continued with her schooling and graduated high school after a brief drop-out time working as the first black cable car conductor in. Around this time she also gave birth to her son Guy.

In her twenties Angelou began her performance career at The Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, then moved on to an international tour in the chorus of Porgy and Bess. These experiences encouraged her to write lyrics, which eventually became poetry and short stories. She then moved to Brooklyn where she became a member of the Harlem Writer's Guild. Brimming with creativity, and it seemed never enough outlets for it, Angelou continued to not only perform; she directed, sang, wrote poetry, short stories and more.

The next several years were a whirlwind of activity and accomplishments. She moved to Africa with South African freedom fighter, Vusumi Make, and her son, where she was associate editor for the Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt. She also worked as a feature editor for the African Review and was a contributor to the Ghanaian Times and Ghanaian Broadcasting Company. Then, after returning to San Francisco, she had a monumental year in 1970 when she wrote her autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings -- nominated for a National Book Award -- became a writer-in-residence at University of Kansas and received a Yale University Fellowship.

And the accomplishments kept pouring in. The talented Angelou - who, by the way, speaks Spanish, French, Italian and West African Fanti -- worked ceaselessly. She had her first book of poetry published called Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and she wrote a screenplay, Georgia, Georgia. Angelou was also nominated for a Tony for acting in a two character play called Look Away, has written and produced several prize winning documentaries, including "Afro-Americans in the Arts," -- a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. The prolific writer went on to complete four more installments of her autobiography -- totaling five -- all of which have sold well, some being best sellers. Her books and poetry are taught at colleges across the country.

Angelou has also received over 50 honorary degrees and even quite a few Presidents of the United States could not ignore her influence and skill. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the National Commission on the Observance of International Woman's Year and President Gerald Ford assigned her to the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Advisory Council. Most recently, she read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration -- the first poet to be requested at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost for President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

She currently holds a lifetime chair as a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, is a board member of the American Film Institute and is one of the few female members of the Director's Guild.

What gave this phenomenal woman the strength and perseverance to succeed? The answer comes from Angelou herself: "The honorary duty of a human being is to love," she has been quoted. She also focuses on decency and humanity; from her own published work she has stated, "I am human and nothing human can be alien to me."


Here is a poem that reflects her unique and lyrical voice.

"Phenomenal Woman"

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say, It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

125 x 250 bath body

© Melt Magazine 2003