#5: Maya Angelou
While Ray Charles was overcoming adversity to reshape the world of jazz and Western popular music, Maya Angelou was establishing herself as one of the great figures in American poetry.
If you’ve heard the phrase I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or even have just heard and maybe used the expression sometime in your life, you have Mrs. Angelou to thank.
Her book by that name, published in 1969, tells the story of her overcoming adversity in her youth, and is a remarkable blend of the bildungsroman/coming-of-age and autobiography genres.
Angelou was the product of what she herself described as her parents’ “calamitous marriage,” and was sent at a young age to live with her grandmother.
She eventually moved back in with her mother, and at age eight was sexually assaulted by one of her mother’s boyfriend. Add to that the racism she faced living in the Jim Crow South, and “overcoming adversity” begins to seem like an understatement.
Nevertheless, she did, being inspired by a teacher to read the works of Shakespeare, Poe and Dickens as well as stars of African-American literature as well. She drew upon this thirst for learning as well as the difficulties of her youth to produce some of the most dynamic and famous poems in 20th century American literature.
Both her poems and I Know Why the Cages Bird Sings earned Angelou everlasting fame and influence. President Bill Clinton recited one of her poems, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” for his 1993 election, and President Barack Obama awarded her the highest civilian honor an American citizen can receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2011. By the time she passed away last year, Angelou had come to stand as one of the true American literary treasures.
There is overcoming adversity, and then there is overcoming racism and extreme personal horror. Mute for years after being sexually assaulted, she forever stands as an inspiration for anyone trying to find their voice after such trauma—and to speak and sing with as much poetic brilliance and beauty as the late, great Maya Angelou.