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Staff Favorite: African American Leader Edition - Who Was Maya Angelou?

In honor of Black History Month, HHYC would like to make a special point to highlight influential African American leaders. My own favorite African American leader is Maya Angelou, a writer, story-teller, and civil rights activist.


“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”

–Maya Angelou


The Work of Genius

Maya is most well-known as a renowned steward of the arts, specializing is all forms of writing. One of Maya's most famous works is titled, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which was deemed a very monumental and controversial text. Within this text, Maya details her own sexual abuse as a young child, which later caused her to become mute. Throughout her five years of silence, Angelou found her own beautiful love for language and began studying the art of word (PoetryFoundation).

From 1944 when Maya graduated high school to her admission into the Harlem Writer's Guild in the late 1950's, Maya worked endlessly to provide for her only child, Guy. Maya was said to have worked as a fry cook, cabaret singer, auto mechanic's hand, shake dancer, and street car conductor.

Upon joining the writer's guild, Maya had the privilege of hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak and it was then that she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of her writings were along the themes of “love, painful loss, music, discrimination, and struggle,” which many have aligned with the plight of the African American during the Civil Rights Movement.

Carol E. Neubauer, a writer for Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, explained in one issue that Angelou focuses on the lives of African Americans from the time of slavery to the 1960s, and that her themes "deal broadly with the painful anguish suffered by blacks forced into submission, with guilt over accepting too much, and with protest and basic survival (Wikipedia)".


Maya's Honors

As a civil rights activist, Maya worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

She was also an accomplished educator and served as the Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. In 1975, Carol Neubauer of Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, recognized Maya as "a spokesperson for… all people who are committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States.” Maya served on two presidential committees, one for President Ford in 1975 and another for President Carter in 1977.

In 2000, Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton.

In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President Obama.

In total, Maya Angelou was awarded over 50 honorary degrees before her death in 2014 (Poetry Foundation).

Why Maya?

Maya Angelou is my favorite African American leader because of the trials and tribulations she was able to overcome in her life. Maya did not speak for many years due to her childhood trauma, and once she got her voice back she wrote.

She used her voice to work alongside other influential leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, fighting for the rights of African American equality.

Maya's famous quote "You may not control what happens to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them," gives me a sense of strength and sparks others in our daily fight for change and equity.



Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). Maya Angelou. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from,and%20Malcolm%20X.

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, September 5). Poetry of Maya Angelou. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from,General%20themes,discrimination%20and%20racism%2C%20and%20struggle.

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