Imagine This: You’re born in St. Louis, Missouri, but you spend your early years growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, in your grandmother’s home. Growing up in Stamps, you learn what it’s like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries are set by whites. It means having to wear old hand-me-down clothes from white women, and it means not being permitted to be treated by a white doctor.
After living with your grandmother for several years, you and your brother return to St. Louis in 1935 to live with your mother who is working part time as a card dealer in a gambling parlor.
At age seven, you’re raped by your mother’s boyfriend, and your mother’s boyfriend is then murdered by your uncles. You feel so responsible for his murder that you vow never to speak in public again.
You carry out your vow and speak to no one except your brother. No one knows how to help you, so you’re sent back to Stamps. Even though you don’t speak in public for several years, you listen intently to everything that goes on around you. Many people think you’re retarded, but your grandmother never becomes discouraged and she never gives up on you.
When you’re ten years old, you meet Bertha Flowers, the most educated black woman in Stamps. You and Bertha not only read books together, but she also gives you a poetry book and tells you that “a person who truly loves poetry reads it aloud.” For the first time in years, you begin to believe in yourself again and you begin to speak.
By the time you graduate with honors from the eighth grade in 1940, people now begin to see you as precocious and eloquent. In 1941 you and your brother are sent to San Francisco to live with your mother again. In San Francisco, you attend George Washington High School and study dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School
You try many jobs, but none of them lasts long. While working in a restaurant, one of your jobs is to drive the owner’s prize fighters to their fights. But you’re quickly fired when you try to stop one of the fights because you don’t want to see your friend get hurt.
After working as a dancer for a while, you audition as a singer in 1952 and are hired at the Purple Onion, a famous San Francisco nightclub. Over the next twenty years you tour in a production of Porgy and Bess, you record the album called “Calyspo Lady,” you hone your skills as a writer, and you become involved with the Civil Rights Movement.
At age forty-two, your humorous autobiographical account about growing up in segregated Arkansas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is nominated for a National Book Award and you become the first African American woman to make the nonfiction best-seller lists.
You use both your positive and your negative life experiences in your poetry and at age forth-three, your first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, is published and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Since 1981, you have been a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where you discovered your love for teaching. It is at Wake Forest that you realize that you’re “not a writer who teaches” but rather “a teacher who writes.” You write and deliver a poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Cinton’s inauguration on January 20, 1993.
As a best-selling author, poet, educator, historian, actress, songwriter, playwright, dancer, singer, producer, director, and civil rights activist, you are recognized today as a Renaissance woman who is one of the great voices of contemporary literature.
“You might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever.”
Maya Angelou (1928- )
Excerpted from Dare to Dream!: 25 Extraordinary Lives by Sandra McLeod Humphrey
For More about Maya Angelou:
Giving Back: She established the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity in 2002 to address the medical needs of minorities.
Did You Know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s birthday (April 4th), and for years afterward, she didn’t celebrate her birthday?
Something to Think about: How do you think Maya Angelou made the transition from victim to one of the most extraordinary women of her era?
Willoughby and I hope you enjoyed this week’s true story and will be back next week for another story to inspire you to DARE TO DREAM BIG!