February 15, 2012


One year ago, President Obama awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom to 15 people, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, investor Warren Buffett, Basketball Legend Bill Russell and poet/author, Maya Angelou. The medal is the nation's highest civilian honor and is awarded to individuals who have made significant contributions "to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."  President Obama praised Dr. Angelou for rising above an abusive childhood to inspire others with her words, saying her voice has "spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.  He quoted Dr. Angelou, saying, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again," and bent down to kiss her cheek as he presented her with the medal.

It is a well-deserved honor, and I have always been a huge fan of Dr. Angelou. She is – in a word – amazing.

Marguerite Ann Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Ms. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya", shortened from "my-a-sister". Her parents’ marriage was not a happy one and ended when Maya was very young; and for a time, she lived with her paternal grandmother, who owned a general store in Arkansas. At the age of eight, she eventually returned to live with her mother; and sadly, was the victim of sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend. Following that trauma, Maya became mute for five years. 

As a teenager, Maya’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation. As a young single mother, she supported her son by working as a waitress and cook; however, her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon become a major focus in her life. She documented the first 17 years of her life in her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was nominated for a National Book Award.

In 1954 and 1955, Maya toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks; and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom. In 1960, Maya moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana, where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. During her years abroad, Maya read and studied, becoming fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language, Fanti.

While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X; and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm was assassinated, and the organization dissolved.

Malcolm X and Maya

Soon after Malcolm’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Maya to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Soon after that, in April 1968, Dr. King was also assassinated, by happenstance, on Maya's birthday. It left her devastated.  She stopped celebrating her birthday for many years following his assassination and annually sent flowers to his widow, Mrs. King, to commemorate that day.

Maya and Mrs. King

The next couple of decades saw Maya working as a composer – writing for singer, Roberta Flack, and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts and documentaries, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and was named visiting professors of several colleges and universities. Being a trailblazer in film and television, Maya wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African-American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Maya was "a reluctant actor" and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away. In 1977, Ms. Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She also began being awarded with hundreds of awards and honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.

In the late '70s, Maya met Oprah Winfrey, before she became ‘Oprah’, when Oprah was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Dr. Angelou would later become Oprah’s close friend and mentor.

Maya and Oprah

Oprah once said of Dr. Angelou, “In all the days of my life, I never met a woman who was more completely herself than Maya Angelou. She fully inhabits and owns every space of herself with no pretense and no false modesty. She has a certain way of being in this world. When you walk into a room and she's there, you know it. She is fully aware of what it means to be human, and share that humanity with others. Being around her makes you want to do the same, be more fully your own self.”

In 1993, President Bill Clinton asked Dr. Angelou to write and recite a poem for his inauguration. When she recited On the Pulse of Morning, she became the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration, in 1961. Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal "across racial, economic, and educational boundaries". The recording of the poem was awarded one of her three Grammy Awards, which she has won during her lifetime.

Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time and has been awarded with over 30 honorary degrees.  Poet, Memoirist, Novelist, Educator, Dramatist, Producer, Actress, Historian, Filmmaker and Activist, she embodies the true essence of being a Renaissance woman. Dr. Angelou’s words and actions continue to move us, energize us, nurture us and heal us.

This month, she will discuss the civil-rights era in a new, hour-long radio program airing in syndication on more than 200 radio stations across the country. For details, visit: www.mayaangelouonpublicradio.com

At the age of 83, Dr. Angelou is still going strong; and I hope that we will be touched by her voice for a long time to come.

Ms. Angelou is also known for her excellent culinary skills. She has published two cookbooks: Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, and Great Food, All Day Long. Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart.  Here is a delicious, simple recipe for popovers from Great Food, All Day Long:

by Maya Angelou Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart Serves 6


  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt


1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease six custard cups or an iron popover pan.
2. Beat the eggs slightly in a large bowl.
3. Add the milk and butter, then add the flour and salt. Beat vigorously for 2 minutes.
4. Pour the batter into very hot custard cups or iron popover pans, filling two-thirds full. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until fully risen and brown.
5. Serve at once.
Tip: If you plan to serve the popovers later, open each popover, place a little savory egg and ham omelette inside, and reheat.

Sources: Wikipedia, LA Times, WhiteHouse.gov, Biography.com, Grandparents.com, Google, Bing

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