The internet is learning a lot about the late Maya Angelou this week. I'm also learning as I look through Twitter and Facebook that many people seem to only know or appreciate one side of Maya Angelou. There's more to this woman than some very powerful quotes. Her story is phenomenal.
A friend of mine who has an unhealthy obsession with art, has a stunning poster of Maya Angelou in his house which bears the words "Prostitute, Poet, Activist". The first time I saw that poster about five years ago, I was in shock. Maya Angelou was once a prostitute? I was intrigued. So imagine my bemusement with a digital world that acts like it has just discovered her and who clearly knew very little of this great woman's life. Let's get to it shall we? I work in media for the simple reason that I believe emphatically that we put the "know" in knowledge.
Angelou in her younger years– was a prostitute, something she was never ashamed of. For some strange reason mainstream media around the world continues to either mention it as a negative thing or dismiss it altogether. Angelou never felt that way about that of her life. She wrote about it in several of her poems.
In interviews, Dr Angelou used the term ‘prostitute’ to refer to her previous employment without bitterness or shame. Are we so pretentious. Are we so uncomfortable with the truth that we celebrate someone only for what we want to be associated with even if that person has no problem with their own life story? She never had a problem with her past, why do we?
The media want you to think and know of Maya Angelou only as a poet, writer and teacher - however she had several other jobs that I feel must be celebrated because they contributed to the person the world celebrates today, albeit with a filter.
Dancer - Angelou went to school in San Francisco to study dance, and though she dropped out at 14, her passion for it never seemed to fizzle. At six-feet tall, Angelou had an unforgettable stage presence. To every guy and girl who longs to participate in Sakata or who has. For every girl who is still twirling in a little dress, for those who spend hours practicing in-front of a mirror to be part of Sarakai or Safari Cats. Dance on - Angelou was a dancer.
Shortly after dropping out of school, Angelou became San Francisco's first black female streetcar conductor at age 16. In one of her many interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Angelou said when she first went to place an application, the staff refused to give her one. However, her mother encouraged her to keep pursuing the job, telling her to work harder than anyone else. Angelou said it seemed like a dream job, adding, "I loved the uniforms." To every female conductor and makanga - Gota!!
After she gave birth at age 16, Angelou did every job imaginable so as to support her son, which she chronicled in Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. One of those jobs was a "shake dancer in a nightclub." To the girls doing their thing at Apple Bees and wherever else - yes this great woman was once like you. However she moved on.
In that same memoir, Angelou wrote that one of those jobs she did so as to provide for her son included working in a mechanic's shop, where she would remove paint from cars with her hands. To the woman and young girl who is still trying to make ends meet at the mujengo and in a garage and who no-one will give a break because "you're a girl" this part of Maya Angelou's story is for you. Carry one. Panel beat that car!
Angelou was a fry cook in a hamburger joint, and she passed herself off as an experienced Creole chef to get a job as a dinner cook — even though she had no idea what she was doing when it came to Creole food. Though she started off with little cooking knowledge, she eventually wrote Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes. In the recipe book, she includes sometimes-hilarious backstories associated with each dish. To those in the service industry, frying chips, chicken and fish, wondering whether it counts. Waiting table, clearing dishes - yes you matter.
After one of her divorces, Angelou, whose real name was Marguerite, tried to make it as a calypso singer and dancer. This is when she adopted the name that everyone in the world would come to know her by. Maya Angelou was a variation of her married name (her ex-husband's name was Tosh Angelos). To the abandoned woman, the divorcee who wonders "what next" this bit of Maya's story is for you. From the ashes of your pain, who knows what will rise. But you must commit yourself to rising.
Maya Angelou was an expert at picking herself up. After falling in love with Vusumzi L Make, a South African civil rights activist, Angelou moved to Cairo, where she worked as the associate editor of The Arab Observer from 1962 to 1963. At that time, the magazine was the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East.
Angelou eventually left Vusumzi Make in the 1960s and then moved to Ghana and took a features editor position at the African Review in Accra. She worked there from 1964 to 1966, during the days of decolonisation.
Ghana seemingly had a huge impact on Angelou's life because it set her on course to becoming a powerful voice in the civil rights movement. While simultaneously working as an editor and an administrative assistant at the University of Ghana, she met Malcolm X.
One year later, she moved back to the US to help Malcolm X set up his Organization of African-American Unity, but it fell apart after his assassination. Angelou went on to work with Dr Martin Luther King to help him set up the Southern Christina Leadership Conference. Angelou was devastated when King was killed, which was on her 40th birthday. That's when Angelou threw herself into her writing and penned her first memoirs.
Remember Kunte Kinte? Maya Angelou played the part of Kunte Kinte’s grandmother in the acclaimed television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. That wasn't the end - she was also in several films and TV series throughout the 1990s and early 2000s: Poetic Justice (1993) - yes, the one that had Janet Jackson and even Madea's Family Reunion (2006).
With the hard lessons and diverse experiences that made up Angelou's life, it seems fitting that one of her final jobs would be as a teacher. In 1982, Angelou took the position of Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
In 2010 Barack Obama awarded Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour. Is it surprising to learn that her most famous poem is entitled "Phenomenal Woman"?
Why am I walking you through this journey that makes you wonder..."ala! Kwani this woman lived how many lives?" The real lessons from Maya Angelou are not the quotes that we have taken to lifting off the internet and posting everywhere (those are great by the way) the real celebration and truly using her story to get real tools for our lives and our story when our time comes. Angelou lived life. She grew, she morphed, she fell, she got up, and fell again and got up again and constantly aimed to improve herself.
As a teenage mother, a struggling Angelou faced darker periods in her life in which she worked less-than-legitimate jobs. One of those included a madam for lesbian prostitutes and a brief, unsuccessful stint as a prostitute herself. She later described these experiences in Gather Together in My Name, a book she said was the most painful thing she's ever written. In one interview, Angelou said that, though the experience gave her a rich life, she doesn't suggest it for just anybody.
For all us - take from that what you may. Heck, buy the book, but remember she not only told the story, she wrote it - yes, for the record.
My salute to Maya Angelou is not about being pretentious and acting like I read a quote daily. No, my salute goes back to that poster five years ago, that made me intrigued almost obsessively by this woman. How can I possibly then ask you to celebrate her and in doing so celebrate your life no matter where you are in your journey if i can't be true to her timeline?
Let me quote something she once said about the "darker" period of her life..
"If you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home - wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalised and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it. I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? - never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name. Meaning that all those grown people, all those adults, all those parents and grandparents and teachers and preachers and rabbis and priests who lie to the children can gather together in my name and I will tell them the truth. Wherever you are, you have got to admit it and set about to make a change."
Many people die. Maya Angelou has gone to rest. She lived life and lived it to the fullest of her being. By the time she was 19, she had worked as cook of sorts, a prostitute, a nightclub waitress and dancer, and had a two-year-old son to support. Many more jobs and relationships followed, before she became a successful dancer, singer and actor, adapting her first husband’s name to become, finally, Maya Angelou.
She maxed herself out and is today mourned and celebrated by Kings, presidents hip-hop artists, college freshmen and women, persons from all walks of like with access to social media and even KOT (Kenyans On Twitter) for one reason alone - she lived - large. Rest In Peace Maya Angelou, Rest In Peace.