Black History Month: The Life and Legacy of Maya Angelou

On Thursday 9th October, I attended an event which commemorated the life and work of African American writer Maya Angelou, who sadly passed away earlier this year. The event was a lecture and open discussion forum on Angelou’s writing, with a notable focus on her autobiographical work. Staff from the American Studies department at the University of East Anglia (UEA) shared their thoughts and feelings on what it is about Angelou’s work that continues to amaze with them. The discussion allowed me to contemplate how Angelou can be viewed as a writer than bridged two interconnected movements: the Anti-Colonial and Civil Rights Movements. I also learnt about her influence on other writers (such as female Aboriginal writers in Australia), the way in which she revolutionised the autobiography and some interpretations of her writings. Maya Angelou’s writing influenced many Aboriginal writers in Australia. These indigenous people were recognised as citizens of the Australian State for the first time in 1967, which helped to fuel Aboriginal activism. Angelou inspired Ruby Langford Ginibi, Rita Huggins and Roberta “Bobbi” Sykes. Personally, I found learning about Bobbi Sykes particularly interesting. Sykes was the first black Australian to graduate from a US university, graduating from Harvard University in 1983, and was then awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1984 before going on to write a three-volume autobiography between 1997 and 2000 (effectively writing herself into being, like Angelou). I was particularly captivated by the exploration on how Angelou changed the notion of autobiographical writer: how by recording her life, she was creating a self-actualised identity. Previously, the archetypal autobiography was written by an elderly, White Middle-Class man. Angelou’s autobiographical works are often viewed as having strong political significance, reminding us of the discrimination and poverty in the world, as well as illustrating hope, joy and celebration. By writing her seven autobiographies, Angelou was declaring her life as a valuable one, challenging and exploring both the importance of identity and views on what is constituted by the idea of value. The title of her first autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is significant in itself. The cage can be seen to represent the things that constrain Maya: racism, sexism, insecurity, poverty, and abuse. Yet the ‘caged bird’ is able to ‘sing’. This is to say, that through Literature and story-telling Maya was able to feel liberated and thrive regardless of any hardship or entrapment faced. I raised the point in the discussion that this sense of identity is explicit when focusing upon her name, Maya, since she chose it herself. This also lends itself to the importance of love demonstrated by Angelou, since it was her closest and dearest relative, her brother Bailey, who could not pronounce “Marguerite” and so called her Mya (“Mya sister”). The sentiment and importance of love is also evident from the start and end of her first autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, since the book is dedicated to her only son, Guy, and the book ends with the potent image whereby she consciously understands for the first time in years that she is capable of loving:

Mother whispered, “See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.” She turned out the light and I patted my son’s body lightly and went back to sleep.

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