Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
by Becky Stone
Sponsored by High Plains Library District

Most of us think of Maya Angelou as a rock – solidly standing with women and the oppressed, rooted in her faith, compassionate, wise.  But during the 60s she was young and, like the rest of us, tossed and turned by the events of the day.

The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott empowered blacks as nothing else had.  When the 60s began, Angelou lived in New York and was moved to take action. Angelou and Godfrey Cambridge raised funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Council by putting on a variety show, The Cabaret for Freedom.  It was a success.  The SCLC was so impressed with how she ran the show that they tapped her for her administrative skills and asked her to replace Bayard Rustin as their New York coordinator.

New Yorkers were about to find out how tough Angelou was.  She was fearless.  When a gang member threatened her son, Angelou borrowed a gun and confronted the young man.  She said she would go to his house and kill everything that moves if her son came home with as much as a black eye or a torn shirt.  So when Patrice Lumumba of the Congo was assassinated, Angelou’s newly formed civil rights association tried to stage a peaceful demonstration at the United Nations.  The protest got out of hand.  A riot ensued.  The next day, Angelou met with Malcolm X, expecting his support.  He told her that what they did was wrong.  It was the first of two reprimands she received from Malcolm.

During this time, Angelou fell in love with a South African freedom fighter.  She and her son followed him to Africa.  In Ghana, Angelou found a vibrant community of African-American ex-patriots who nurtured her love of black heritage and fueled her desire for change back home.  After almost five years there, Angelou felt that she belonged in the U.S.  She had spent time with Malcolm X after his visit to Mecca, and had received another reprimand for her arrogant, angry attitude.  But Malcolm saw her potential for leadership. He asked her to help him with his new movement.  She jumped at the chance.

When Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965, she found a country in turmoil.  The President had been assassinated, the civil rights movement faced increased violence, and the Vietnam War was escalating.  Angelou went to California to see her family first, and while she was there, Malcolm was assassinated.  She never got to work with him. Angelou then agreed to help Martin Luther King Jr. with his Poor Peoples March.  She promised to go East right after her birthday.  Martin Luther King was assassinated on her birthday.

Angelou returned to New York.  She had a circle of friends there who sustained her, her passion to right wrongs, and her writing.  By 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published.  Reflecting on and writing about her life seemed to give Angelou perspective and direction.  Not only did the caged bird sing, she had flown, and the world had embraced her.


Recommended Reading

Angelou, Maya.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969.

Angelou, Maya.  A Song Flung Up to Heaven. Random House, 2002.

Agins, Donna Brown.  Maya Angelou: A Biography of an Award-Winning Poet ad Civil Rights Activist (African-American Icons). Enslow Publishers, 2013.

Gillespie, Marcia Ann., et al.  Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration.  Doubleday, 2008.

Wagner-Martin, Linda.  Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit. Bloomsbury, 2016.


Becky Stone

Becky Stone was born and raised in Philadelphia. She earned her undergraduate degree at Vassar College in Drama with a minor in French. Her M.A. is in Educational Counseling from Villanova University. She worked for seven years for the Philadelphia School System and taught for 10 years at a classical Christian school in Fletcher, NC.

Becky has been a Chautauqua scholar since 2003 when she first researched and presented Pauli Murray. Her other characters are Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. Becky continues to act in theater occasionally. Most often she is on stage as a storyteller at festivals, libraries, and schools.


Bullet Point

Maya was in the midst of it. Her circle of friends and co-workers included -
Civil Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and Malcolm X
The Arts: James Baldwin, John Killens, Godfrey Cambridge, Cecily Tyson, James Earl Jones, Alvin Ailey, Abby Lincoln, and Max Roach



“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

“There’s nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

“Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.”

“I will not sit in a group of Black friends and hear racial pejoratives against Whites. I will not hear honky. I will not hear Jap. I will not hear kike. I will not hear greaser. I will not hear dago. I will not hear it. I will not have gay bashing, lesbian bashing. Not in my company. As soon as I hear it, I say, excuse me; I have to leave. Sorry. Or if it’s in my home, I say, “You have to leave. I can’t have that. That is poison, and I know it is poison, and you’re smearing it on me. I will not have it.”



1928 - Born in St Louis, MO

1935 - Raped and did not speak for almost 5 years

1945 - Graduated high school and gave birth to her only son

1951 - Married Tosh Angelopoulos (Div. 1954), the name from which Angelou is derived

1954-55 - Toured Europe and North Africa in Porgy and Bess as “Ruby”

1958 - Moved to New York City, joined Harlem Writers Guild

1960 - Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Council

1961 - Lived in Cairo, then Ghana with Visumzi Make, South African activist

1970 - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published, first of 7 autobiographies

1972 - Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, poetry

1982 - Becomes the first lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University

1993 - Wrote and recited “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s Inauguration

2011 - Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

2014 - Dies of heart failure in Winston-Salem, NC