Angelou’s story testifies to the power of literacy to overcome personal hardship. Her life, though fraught with obstacles, teaches us that voracious curiosity can motivate even the most downtrodden to rise to excellence.
In her childhood, Maya suffered greatly at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. But in Maya’s racially segregated Arkansas town, priority wasn’t placed on protecting black children. The man was jailed, but released after only one day. After his release, a mob attacked and killed him.
Maya went silent. She said, “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years.” From the silence, however, a much louder voice was born, a voice that would motivate social change and inspire readers for generations. For Maya, her written word became more than a tool of self-expression. It became her liberation. In her poem “Caged Bird,” Angelou describes the power of her voice to free her from adversity:
“A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped
and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.”
Liberated by her ability to write, Maya sought deeper and more expansive knowledge throughout her life. At the age of 26, she toured Europe with the opera company Porgy and Bess. By 32 she secured a job in Cairo as the editor of an English language paper. The following year, she moved to Ghana and became a professor at the Ghana School of Music and Drama. Success of this magnitude was extremely rare for women at the time, especially for African American women. Yet, Maya’s voracious appetite for knowledge allowed her to transcend the challenges of her background. Angelou read and studied constantly, mastering several languages including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Fanti.
A thoroughly self-educated woman, by age 40 Maya was deeply involved in a variety of world causes, most notably the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou to serve as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that would prove integral in the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the eventual desegregation of the south. Finally, Maya cemented her position as an American hero by publishing over 30 works of celebrated fiction. Her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is acclaimed for its stark accounts of racism in the Jim Crow south.
Maya Angelou’s life exemplifies the transformative power of literacy for children. What if Maya had never learned to read? What if she had never discovered her liberating ability to write? Unfortunately, all too often children like Maya never receive the literacy skills that would allow them to achieve and succeed. All too often, the bright lights of young minds are snuffed out before they are even given a chance to shine. That’s why we, at The Heart of America Foundation, dedicate ourselves to making childhood literacy a universal possibility. Maya Angelou once said, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.”