#100PENMembers No.26: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, writer, civil rights activist, feminist, filmmaker, survivor and PEN member used her writing to change the perceptions of contemporary America and the world.

Maya Angelou, 1974. (Photo by Craig Herndon / The Washington Post)

Her work opened up the world’s eyes to suffering, not only of African Americans but of women, the poor, the destitute and the forgotten.

A member of PEN America, Angelou is one of the country’s most frequently banned authors.

Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), one of the most influential in American literature, received 39 public bans in America for its tackling of themes of childhood rape, sexuality and racism and continues to be a controversial inclusion on reading lists in high schools and colleges across her home country.

The memoir describes Angelou’s childhood in the Southern United States, as she navigated the Jim Crow laws and racially-segregated society, seeing the black community repeatedly falling victim to poverty and violence as they skirted the sidelines of the faceless and affluent whites living in the more prosperous areas of town. It also includes a description of Angelou’s own childhood experience of sexual violence.

Whilst the sexual violence is most often cited as the reason for banning the book in schools, it is often described in reports by school boards as being ‘sexually explicit’, as ‘encouraging homosexuality’ and as being ‘anti-white’.

Nonetheless, the book received a National Book Award and remained on US bestseller lists for almost two years.

In response to the book being banned in Huntington Beach, California in 2010, Angelou told the local newspaper ‘I’m always sorry that people ban my books. Many times I’ve been called the most banned. And many times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who doesn’t get to read.’

Angelou also won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1972, Tony and Emmy Awards and Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word album in 1993, 1995, and 2002.

But the reach of Angelou’s voice stretches far beyond her successful writing career –she political campaigner who worked closely with civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Maya Angelou with the novelist James Baldwin

‘We are all political, whether we accept it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not. Everything is a political act.’

Maya Angelou

Much like inspirational young poet Amanda Gorman who read at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration, Angelou read the poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. 

In recognition of her political work and her tremendous achievements in the arts, Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.

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