Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. She was three when her parents’ marriage ended. Her father sent her and her four year old brother, Bailey Jr., to live with their paternal grandmother. Annie Henderson lived in Stamp, Arkansas where she owned a successful grocery store. What makes this scenario exceptional is that Mrs. Henderson, Marguerite and Bailey Jr. were black. It was the early 1930’s – a time of overt racial discrimination. Annie instilled in her grandchildren the Christian principles of faith and love. She showed how to live with independence and courage.
When Marguerite was seven, her father showed up and took her and her brother back to St. Louis where they lived with their mother. Her mother’s boyfriend raped her at the age of eight – he was tried but released. Two days later he was found beaten to death – Marguerite and Bailey moved back to Stamp – back to live with their grandmother. Marguerite was absolutely certain that her speaking of the rape had caused his death. With that belief, she didn’t speak for over five years – essentially becoming a mute.
At the encouragement of a friend of the family, she began to read books by significant authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare and Poe. She also became aware of black female artists such as Anne Spencer, Frances Harper and Jessie Fauset. At the age of thirteen Marguerite began speaking again. Shortly after, the children moved to San Francisco to once again be with their mother.
Marguerite was awarded a scholarship to study dance and drama at the San Francisco Labor School. She dropped out and became the first African-American female cable car operator. At seventeen, she gave birth to a son whom she named Guy. Her mother, who had become a nurse, was the one who actually delivered the baby. As a single mother, Marguerite took a variety of jobs to support herself and Guy – waitress, cook – whatever.
Soon, her passion for the arts – performance, singing, dancing, poetry – began to call to her…and she answered. She had married in 1951 – an interracial marriage that met with the disapproval of her mother and society as a whole. She danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco before her son and new husband moved to New York, where, she sang and danced calypso. Her marriage ended after three years, she then toured Europe in a production of Porgy and Bess.
Back in the U.S., she recorded a calypso album, joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and began writing an autobiography. Over time, she wrote and directed film and television and performed on Broadway. She heard Dr. Martin Luther King which motivated her to help start the Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), subsequently becoming its Northern Director. She became a passionate activist – anti-apartheid, pro-Castro and definitely in support of civil rights.
It was 1969 when her completed book – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – was published and received immediate acclaim. In it she portrayed her personal life, leaving nothing out. She wrote about the rape, the racism, the challenges, the victories, her accomplishments. One review said that in the book she wrote about “blackness from the inside without apology or defense.”
She went on to write thirty-six books, seven of which are autobiographies. Her poetry is recognized around the world to the point that she’s been called the Black Woman’s Poet Laureate. She received the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Her works, her wisdom, her talent, her beliefs have influenced literally millions of people across multiple generations.
All of these accomplishments are the result of a fearless brand – the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou.
Marguerite Johnson came to be known as Maya Angelou. Her beloved brother Bailey couldn’t pronounce her name so she became ‘My’ or ‘Mya’ sister – Maya. She adopted the name Angelou early in her performing career because it was felt that it would be more distinctive and memorable than Johnson. Her name may have changed but Maya Angelou has been completely authentic from a very early age.
She learned that some things required acceptance – but that there was much which could be changed. Dr. Angelou learned to give voice to her experience, her beliefs and her wisdom through her actions, her writings, her activism and her talent. Her writings document history through her first-hand experience of life as a black woman, a single mother, fighting poverty, seeking higher education and empowering others.
Dr. Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014 – she was eighty-six. Throughout her life she was committed to learning and teaching. She never quit living with the courage and independence, the faith and love instilled in her by her grandmother. Fortunate for us, there are numerous lessons which we can learn from the life and teachings of Dr. Angelou.
Don’t be held down – There were any number of conditions and situations which could have held Dr. Angelou down – but didn’t. That’s because she learned early in life to channel her efforts towards things she could change and affect – and to accept those things she had no control over. She would consistently seek options and solutions which allowed her to move in the direction she chose. Know your parameters but also know your opportunities – find the courage to change what you can. Dr. Angelou said it this way “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain”.
Use all of your talents – Dr. Angelou believed that we do ourselves a great disservice when we limit our talent to one endeavor. The variety and diversity of her activities proves that we need not worry about becoming a jack-of-all-trades. Tap into your full potential. You may not be able to write poetry at the level of Maya, but you can indeed write good poetry. “It is time for parents to teach early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength”.
Treat people well – Perhaps the most shared quote from Dr. Angelou is this “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”. Be certain that a component of your brand includes empathy and consideration of others’ needs and wants.
For all of her eighty-six years, Dr. Maya Angelou continued to evolve her brand – adapting, exploring, pursuing, learning. Branding is a never-ending process. Your brand can always be upgraded. Be diligent. Be interested. Be teachable.