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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 September, 2003, 00:06 GMT 01:06 UK
Angelou's fight - with poetry
Maya Angelou
Angelou's works have tackled racism and prejudice towards women
American poet and civil rights activist Dr Maya Angelou has spoken of her remarkable life as she celebrates her 75th birthday.

Among other things, Angelou - best-known for works such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Still I Rise - has been a calypso singer, a Hollywood actress, a newspaper editor and journalist, and the first black American woman to have a screenplay made into a film.

She was a friend of both Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

She told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme that her activism stemmed from her upbringing - she was born and raised in the American Deep South, in Stamps, Arkansas, during the Depression.

"There was so much ignorance afoot in the South," Angelou said.

"The whites were really brutishly ignorant, blitheringly, so they killed people sometimes - just came into the African-American community and maimed people because they didn't agree with God's choice for the colours of the people's skin.

"I grew up in a climate fraught with that kind of racism."

Child trauma

Angelou's parents split up when she was small. Her father kept her for a while, until he found out her mother was seeing another man.

"My father wanted to curtail the good times my mother was having, so he just picked us up and dropped us on her doorstep," she said.

"She tried to handle it, but after I'd been there a couple of months her boyfriend raped me."

Maya Angelou
Angelou was a singer in her youth
Angelou was seven at the time. Shortly afterwards, her mother's boyfriend was dead.

"I told my brother the name of the rapist. He was put in jail for one day and released," she recalled.

"About three days later five policemen came to my maternal grandmother's house and told her that the man had been found dead.

"I was there, and it seemed he'd been kicked to death.

"I thought my voice had killed him, so it was better not to speak - so I simply stopped speaking."

Angelou said she was encouraged by her mother eventually to talk again, but she became pregnant and had her first child the week of graduation, aged 16. She then drifted from job to job, working briefly as a prostitute.

She said she had developed her personal philosophy from this time.

"I wrote a book in which I talked about having been a prostitute at 18. I thought: 'Let me tell young people this - you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter some defeats to know who you are.'

"Forgive yourself - no-one else will.

"Admit it, you blew it - so what else is new? Admit it and get out."

Civil rights

At the time, Angelou's way of getting out was singing, and she released an album called Miss Calypso.

Dr Martin Luther King
Angelou worked closely with Dr Martin Luther King
But then in the 1950s she moved to New York and joined the American civil rights movement.

"I went to hear Dr Martin Luther King speak in Harlem, and I was so moved by him," she said.

"Then Dr Martin Luther King's northern representative was about to leave the organisation, and he suggested that I would be the person to come in and step into that position."

Angelou said she remembered Dr King as a "brilliant" man, whose "brain was like sparkles of stardust".

Angelou also spent some time in Ghana, which had become a key place for African-American intellectuals to visit.

"It was so wonderful to be in a country where nobody could complain that one was not given rights, or given promotion, because of one's colour," Angelou stated.

"It was good to have a place to come to which I could call in my own way a second home.

"But I was an American. I realised that I was that more in Ghana that I ever realised in America. I realised that my mothers and fathers, and all their people, had enriched the soil of America with their sweat and tears and blood and flesh."


She returned to America to work with Malcolm X - but two days later he was assassinated.

'When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate' -
that's a black girl

Maya Angelou
On Angelou's birthday in 1968, Dr King was also shot dead - something she recalled well.

"I was making the big party - the food and all that - and my friend called, and she said: 'Sister, have you listened to the television? Don't turn on the radio, don't answer the phone until I get there.'

"And she came, and she said Martin Luther King had been killed. It really unnerved me."

Soon afterwards, Angelou began her writing career in earnest - her works in part inspired by Shakespeare.

"I was so amazed that he could know so much," she said of the playwright.

"When I came to a number of sonnets, I thought: 'That has got to be a black girl who wrote that - a black girl who had been sexually abused.'"

At 75-years-old, Angelou remains part of the US civil rights movement. She told Everywoman that black Americans had made great progress, but there was still work to do.

"We've done some wonderful things in the US - we've come a long way," she said.

"In outer space there are black men. We are a tenth of the population. Black men and women are CEOs of great corporations, and presidents of great universities.

"We have pressed very hard, because I have yet to see anyone who opens the door and says: 'African-Americans, come right in here.'"

Angelou's rainbow of poetry
05 Jun 02  |  Wales
Maya Angelou's long journey
06 Jun 02  |  Entertainment

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