Maya Angelou is born

Maya Angelou is born

Poet and novelist Maya Angelou—born Marguerite Johnson—is born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she and her brother went to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. When she was eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she revealed what happened, her uncles kicked the culprit to death. Frightened by the power of her own tongue, Angelou chose not to speak for the next five years.

From this quiet beginning emerged a young woman who sang, danced, and recorded poetry. After moving to San Francisco with her mother and brother in 1940, Angelou began taking dance lessons, eventually auditioning for professional theater. However, her plans were put on hold when she had a son at age 16. She moved to San Diego, worked as a nightclub waitress, tangled with drugs and prostitution and danced in a strip club. Ironically, the strip club saved her career: She was discovered there by a theater group.

She auditioned for an international tour of Porgy and Bess and won a role. From 1954 to ’55, she toured 22 countries.

In 1959, she moved to New York, became friends with prominent Harlem writers, and got involved with the civil rights movement. In 1961, she moved to Egypt with a boyfriend and edited for the Arab Observer. After leaving her boyfriend, she headed to Ghana, where a car accident severely injured her son. While caring for him in Ghana, she took a job at the African Review, where she stayed for several years. Her writing and personal development flourished under the African cultural renaissance that was taking place.

When she returned to the U.S., she began publishing her multivolume autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Four more volumes appeared during the next two decades, as well as several books of poetry. In 1981, Angelou was appointed Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. She was nominated for several important awards and read a poem written for the occasion at President Clinton’s inauguration.

Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in North Carolina. She was 86 years old.

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. After her parents' marriage ended, she and her brother, Bailey (who gave her the name "Maya"), were sent to rural Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother, who owned a general store. Although her grandmother helped her develop pride and self-confidence, Angelou was devastated when she was raped at the age of eight by her mother's boyfriend while on a visit to St. Louis. After she testified against the man, several of her uncles beat him to death. Believing that she had caused the man's death by speaking his name, Angelou refused to speak for approximately five years. She attended public schools in Arkansas and later California. While still in high school she became the first ever African American female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, California. She gave birth to a son at age sixteen. In 1950 she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek sailor, but the marriage lasted only a few years.

Later Angelou studied dance and drama and went on to a career in theater. She appeared in Porgy and Bess, which gave performances in twenty-two countries. She also acted in several plays on and off Broadway, including Cabaret for Freedom, which she wrote with Godfrey Cambridge. During the early 1960s Angelou lived in Cairo, Egypt, where she was the associate editor of The Arab Observer. During this time she also contributed articles to The Ghanaian Times and was featured on the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation programming in Accra, Ghana. During the mid-1960s she became assistant administrator of the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. She was the feature editor of the African Review in Accra from 1964 to 1966. After returning to the United States civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929�) requested she serve as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the glist’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Read more about the history of this important song at NAACP

Break music: Spy vs. Spy, by Sound 73 End music: Hymnal, by Town Monster

Maya Angelou

By Emily Horton, NC Government & Heritage Library, 2012 Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library, 2014.

Maya Angelou was best known as a poet and the best-selling author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). Angelou was also a singer, dancer, Grammy-winning composer, director, and actress. She was hailed as an internationally regarded figure for her role as a civil rights leader who fought for social and racial justice.

Angelou resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for over thirty years. Dr. Angelou moved to North Carolina in 1981 after accepting a lifetime teaching position at Wake Forest University as the first recipient of the Reynolds Professor of American Studies. During her career as a tenured professor, Angelou taught a variety of subjects, including science, theology, theater, writing, ethics, and philosophy.

In addition to teaching at Wake Forest, Angelou positively impacted her local North Carolina community in other ways. Angelou gave her name and support to the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest School of Medicine. The Center aims to close disparities in the quality of healthcare for minorities, focusing largely on African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and American Indians.

She was the recipient for the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1987.


Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri to Vivian and Bailey Johnson. Her parents divorced when she was three years old, and as a result Angelou moved around as a child. She was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas, and spent much of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) is the first, and most famous, installment of her seven-volume autobiographical series. This work gives an account of Angelou's troubled upbringing, focusing largely on the long-term impact of the sexual abuse she endured at age eight.

Angelou won a scholarship to San Francisco’s Labor School to study dance and drama. Although she dropped out briefly when she was fourteen to become the first female cable car conductor in San Francisco, she eventually returned to George Washington High School in San Francisco to graduate. Soon after graduation, Angelou gave birth to her first son, Clyde (later renamed Guy), and worked in restaurants to support her family. The second of her autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name (1974),begins when Angelou is seventeen, picking up where I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ends. Gather Together in My Name portrays Angelou’s struggle for survival as a single black woman raising a young son.

In the 1950s, when Angelou was in her twenties, she began to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. During this time, she travelled worldwide as a performer and a writer. Between 1954 and 1955, Angelou toured Europe as a cast member of Porgy and Bess, an opera set in South Carolina. Angelou’s travels across Europe and her work as a performer are captured in her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin' Merry like Christmas (1976). In 1957, she recorded her first album, Calypso Lady, which was followed by her move to New York City to join the Harlem Writers Guild and pursue acting.

In 1960, Angelou left New York and moved to Cairo, Egypt with civil rights activist Vusumzi Make, where she worked as the editor of The Arab Observer. A year later, she moved to Ghana where she worked as the feature editor for The African Review and taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. During her time abroad, Angelou became fluent in Fanti, a West African language, French, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic. In 1981, Angelou published the fourth volume of her autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, spanning 1957 to 1962. This work captures her life during her travels both within the United States and abroad, raising a teenage son, and her involvement in the beginnings of the civil rights movement. The fifth volume of her autobiography, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, published in 1986, delves deep into her years spent in Ghana, where she began to discover her heritage as an African American woman.

Maya Angelou was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In 1964, Angelou returned to the United States to work with the Organization of African American Unity, led by Malcom X. When the organization collapsed after Malcolm X’s assassination, Angelou began working with Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote the Southern Christian Leadership Conference through her role as Northern Coordinator.A Song Flung up to Heaven, published in 2002, is the sixth installment of her autobiographical series, and provides a personal account of Angelou's role as an influential leader of the civil rights movement between 1965 and 1968.

In the 1970s, Angelou continued to have a successful career and break social and racial boundaries as a black woman. In 1972, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Just Give me A Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie” (1971), her first anthology of published poems. Like Angelou’s previous work, these poems eloquently enlightened readers on issues of human rights, highlighting the struggles faced by African Americans, minorities, and women.

Angelou began to heavily pursue a career in theater. In 1972, Angelou wrote and scored the film Georgia, Georgia, becoming the first African American woman to have a screenplay produced. Her artistic pursuits continued, and she was nominated for a 1973 Tony Award for Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for her role in Look Away. She was nominated for a 1977 Emmy Award for her role in Alex Haley’s television miniseries Roots, and also appeared in John Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice. In 1996, Maya Angelou directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta. This film was nominated for a 1998 Audience Choice Award and a 1999 Black Film Award for Best Director. Angelou was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture.

Throughout her career, Maya Angelou published numerous children’s books, collaborated on several documentaries, composed music for singer Roberta Flack, received three Grammy Awards, worked on two presidential committees, and received over thirty honorary degrees. In 1993, Angelou, at the request of President Clinton, composed and read a poem at his inauguration. In 2000, Maya Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2010, Angelou celebrated her 82 nd birthday with a garden party held at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The party was sponsored by Lowes Home Improvement, a North Carolina-based hardware store chain. Guests included singers Naomi Judd and Martina McBride, and director Lee Daniels. Local university educators were also in attendance, including Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, Senior President of Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC and John Mauceri, Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

In 2013, she published the seventh and final installment of her autobiography, Mom & Me & Mom, which focused on her relationship with her mother, who passed away in 1991.

Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

Maya Angelou was an internationally renowned bestselling author, poet, actor, and performer, as well as a pioneering activist for the rights of African Americans and of women. Her first published book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), was an autobiographical account of her childhood, including the ten years she lived in Stamps (Lafayette County) with her grandmother. The popular and critical success of the book was the foundation of her career as an author and public figure, as well as the basis of her identification as an Arkansas author. She was in the first group of inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1993. She held over fifty honorary university degrees, along with many other awards recognizing her accomplishments in the arts and her service to human rights.

Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Bailey Johnson, who was a naval dietitian, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, who was a nurse. Angelou had one sibling, her older brother Bailey Jr. he called her “Maya,” his version of “my sister.”

After the divorce of their parents in 1931, Marguerite and Bailey Jr. were sent to Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their uncle, Willie, in Stamps. Henderson owned a grocery store in the center of the black section of the small town and reared the children according to the strict Christian values common in the rural South at that time. The family encountered the racial prejudice of white customers in the store and of the community leaders generally. In her autobiography, Angelou recounted chafing at the attitudes she encountered of people who seemed to condone the limited opportunities available for black high school graduates of the time. Later, Angelou suggested that her faith and Christian beliefs—as well as her strong sense of fair play and realization of her own and others’ inner beauty—stemmed from these early experiences.

In 1935, the children were returned to the care of their mother in St. Louis but were sent back to Stamps after it was discovered that Marguerite had been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was tried and convicted but then released he was found dead soon after. The eight-year-old girl felt guilty and believed that her voice had caused the death of the rapist, so she became mute and remained so for several years.

The two children once again moved to be with their mother—this time to San Francisco, California. After dropping out of high school, Marguerite was briefly employed as a cable car conductor, the first black person ever to hold that position. She returned to Mission High School and earned a scholarship to study dance, drama, and music at San Francisco’s Labor School, where she also learned about the progressive ideologies that may have served as a foundation for her later social and political activism. In 1944, three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to her son, Claude (who later changed his name to Guy). She had no further formal education.

At age sixteen, in order to support herself and her son, she worked in many capacities: cocktail waitress, dancer, cook, and sex worker—all before the age of twenty-five. She used these life experiences to serve as themes in her works of prose and poetry.

At the age of twenty-one, she married a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. Before they divorced in 1952, when she was singing at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, she created her professional name by combining a variation of his surname with her brother’s nickname for her, Maya. Eventually, she legally changed her name to Maya Angelou.

In 1954–55, she toured Europe and Africa in a State Department–sponsored production of the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1955, she moved with her son to New York City, where she studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. She appeared in television shows and released an album called Miss Calypso in 1957, also appearing in the film Calypso Heat Wave the same year. A composer of poems and song lyrics since her teen years, she continued to develop her writing skills.

She met prominent members of the African-American creative community and performed in Jean Genet’s The Blacks. With Godfrey Cambridge she produced Cabaret for Freedom, a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Martin Luther King Jr., a leader in SCLC, recruited Angelou as its northern coordinator in 1960.

In the early 1960s, she met South African freedom fighter and civil rights advocate Vusumzi Make, a leader of the Pan Africanist Congress who was then living in New York City. They moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she became editor of the weekly newspaper the Arab Observer. In 1963, she and her son left Egypt for Ghana, where she met Malcolm X. She became an assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama and later a feature editor for the African Review, as well as a feature writer for the Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company, where she also recorded public service announcements.

While residing in Africa, she studied several languages: Fanti (a West African language), French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic. An account of her time in Ghana was serialized in Essence magazine and was published in 1986 as All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.

Upon returning to the United States, Angelou rejoined the civil rights movement, working with Malcolm X in the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and King was assassinated in 1968 — on April 4, Angelou’s birthday.

In reaction to these events, Angelou—encouraged by novelist James Baldwin—began writing the first installment of her life story, including an account of her years in Arkansas. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first published in 1970 and has since been translated into more than ten languages. Her experiences in the civil rights movement were a focus of a later autobiography, The Heart of a Woman (1981). Enjoying her burgeoning career as a writer, lecturer, and public personality following the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she wrote the screenplay for Georgia, Georgia, a Swedish-American film it was the first screenplay by an African American to be filmed. A collection of her poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Winning much critical acclaim and becoming a national figure who was always in demand for public appearances, she continued to maintain her political activism. The running themes in all of her works, both about herself and about the world, deal with the individual’s wish and right to survive in a non-hostile world. Believing that hatred and racism destroy that which is good and basic in humankind, she struggled to provide simple, down-to-earth solutions to the problems that threaten the world.

In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a Welsh writer and cartoonist who was previously married to activist and author Germaine Greer she and du Feu divorced in 1980.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford appointed her to the Bicentennial Commission. In 1981, she received a lifetime appointment to the Reynolds Chair of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1993, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations and “From a Black Woman to a Black Man” at the Million Man March in 1995.

Angelou had a distinctive and compelling speaking voice, and, at six feet tall, a powerful physical presence enhanced by her training in dance and stage performance. Angelou was nominated for a 1977 Emmy Award for her portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Alex Haley’s television miniseries Roots. Angelou appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and the Tavis Smiley Show. She also started a Hallmark greeting cards line called Life Mosaic. The movie Poetic Justice (1993) featured poetry written by Angelou and performed by Janet Jackson. Among other acting efforts, she appeared in How to Make an American Quilt (1995). In 1998, she made her film directing debut with Down in the Delta (1998). In 2006, she had a starring role in Tyler Perry’s Medea’s Family Reunion. In 2002, she won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000. On February 15, 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 2013, she received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation and the Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Norman Mailer Center.

Her body of published works includes autobiographies, numerous poetry collections, a book of essays, several plays, a screenplay, and a cookbook. Among her many works are Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (2004), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).

After a period of ill health, Angelou was found dead by her caretaker on May 28, 2014, in North Carolina. In June 2014, the town of Stamps renamed its only park in her honor. On April 7, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp in honor of Angelou. In March 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure to rename a post office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after Angelou. In January 2021, Mattel launched a Barbie in the likeness of Angelou as part of its “Inspiring Women” series.

For additional information:
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.

Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Gillespie, Marcia, ed. Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Lisandrelli, Elaine. Maya Angelou: More Than a Poet. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: The Iconic Self. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2016.

Maya Angelou Papers. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library, New York, New York.

Mickle, Mildred R., ed. Critical Insights: Maya Angelou. Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, 2016.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. She grew up in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. She was an author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. She was best known for her seven autobiographical books: Mom & Me & Mom (Random House, 2013) Letter to My Daughter (Random House, 2008) All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (Random House, 1986) The Heart of a Woman (Random House, 1981) Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (Random House, 1976) Gather Together in My Name (Random House, 1974) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1969), which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Among her volumes of poetry are A Brave and Startling Truth (Random House, 1995) The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House, 1994) Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (Random House, 1993) I Shall Not Be Moved (Random House, 1990) Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (Random House, 1983) Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (Random House, 1975) and Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (Random House, 1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1959, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1961 to 1962 she was associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East, and from 1964 to 1966 she was feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana. She returned to the United States in 1974 and was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year. She accepted a lifetime appointment in 1982 as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1993, Angelou wrote and delivered a poem, "On The Pulse of the Morning," at the inauguration for President Bill Clinton at his request. In 2000, she received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2010 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

The first black woman director in Hollywood, Angelou wrote, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. In 1971, she wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia, and was both author and executive producer of a five-part television miniseries "Three Way Choice." She also wrote and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including "Afro-Americans in the Arts," a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. Angelou was twice nominated for a Tony award for acting: once for her Broadway debut in Look Away (1973), and again for her performance in Roots (1977).

Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982. She was eighty-six.

Tag: Maya Angelou

Charles Gordone, accessed

The unified efforts of the Civil Rights Movement began to fracture when in 1966 a new strategy and ideology emerged, known as the Black Power Movement. This new movement also influenced the development of the Black Arts Movement. According to historian Ann Chambers, the Black Arts Movement did not speak for the entire black community however, the movement gave a “new sense of racial pride to many young African-American artists.” One African-American writer and actor who opposed the Black Arts Movement was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Charles Gordone.

Gordone was born Charles Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1925. In 1927, his mother moved with her children to Elkhart, Indiana. By 1931, she married, changing Charles Fleming’s name to Charles Gordon. He attended Elkhart High School and, although popular at school, faced racial discrimination while living in Indiana because of the divide between white and African-American children. According to Gordon, both races rejected him. White children avoided him because he was black, and the town’s African-American community shunned him because his family “lived on the other side of the tracks and . . . thought we [the Gordons] were trying to be white.”

After serving in the US Army Air Corps, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College, and graduated in 1952. Gordon stated that he majored in performing arts because “I couldn’t keep myself away from the drama department.” His experiences in college influenced his outlook on race in America. Gordon stated “I was always cast in subservient or stereotypical roles,” and he began wondering why he was not given prominent parts in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello plays. After graduation, Gordon moved to New York City. Once on the east-coast, Charles Gordon added an “e” to the end of his name, and became Charles Gordone when he joined Actor’s Equity Association a labor union for theater actors and stage managers.

Supporters of the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers picketing a theater in New York City, 1962, courtesy of

Two months after Gordone’s arrival in New York, he performed in Moss Hart’s Broadway play, The Climate of Eden, the “first of many Broadway and off-Broadway productions” for Gordone. He soon realized that black actors had a hard time earning a living in the entertainment business, and he claimed he “began to get really intense” about the lack of acting jobs for African Americans. He started conversing with many “young black actors,” and soon started picketing theaters on Broadway for better job opportunities. Similarly, fellow Hoosier actor William Walker, who portrayed Reverend Sykes in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, became a fierce civil rights advocate in Hollywood after being relegated to roles as a domestic servant because of his race. Walker worked with actor and future president Ronald Reagan to obtain more roles for African Americans.

Around 1963, Gordone became the chairman of the Committee for Employment of Negro Performers (CENP). Gordone claimed in 1962 and 1963 that television producers feared the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship if they “put Negroes in their shows” and that “discrimination took more forms in the entertainment field than in any other industry.”

Although the Civil Rights Movement had made extensive strides toward improving equality among the races, civil rights laws did not deter de facto segregation, or forms of segregation not “codified in law but practiced through unwritten custom.” In most of America, social norms excluded African Americans from decent schools, exclusive clubs, suburban housing divisions, and “all but the most menial jobs.” Federal laws also did not address the various factors causing urban black poverty. As racial tension mounted throughout the United States, Gordone struggled to survive in New York City. During the last half of the 1950s, out of work and broke, Gordone took a job as a waiter for Johnny Romero in the first African-American owned bar in Greenwich Village. His experiences there inspired his play No Place to Be Somebody, which he began scripting in 1960.

During the next seven years writing his play, Gordone sporadically worked in the theater industry. He was an original member of the cast for Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show. The playwright, a white man, intended the play for an all African-American cast and a white audience. He states in his script that “One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what’s his color?”

In The Blacks: A Clown Show, African Americans wage war against the “white power structure,” and the oppressed evolve into the oppressor. Warner noted that Genet’s play put Gordone “in touch with his black anger.” In 1969, Gordone claimed that his experience as part of the cast changed his life because the play dealt with problems about race, enabled him to confront the “hatred and fear I [Gordone] had inside me about being black,” and introduced a talented group of African-American actors to the entertainment media including James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.

1970 play bill, accessed

Gordone finished his own play, No Place to Be Somebody, in 1967. The plot of the play revolves around an African-American bar owner named Johnny Williams. Other characters include a mixed-race actor, a black homosexual dancer, a Jewish strumpet, a black prostitute, an Irish hipster, an aging black hustler, a member of the Italian mafia, an influential white judge, and the judge’s idealistic daughter. Johnny Williams, is a tavern-owner, pimp and wannabe racketeer. His foil, Gabriel, also an African-American, is an intellectual struggling to be accepted as a legitimate actor.

According to a New York Times reviewer, the characters are forced to try and survive in a society controlled by white standards. Johnny Williams possesses a desire to become “somebody” in Italian-run organized crime Gabriel fails in his attempts to be cast in African American roles because he is light-skinned. The characters’ actions in No Place to Be Somebody are influenced by racial and cultural pressures directed towards characters of opposing races. According to Gordone, “It [the play] is the story of power, about somebody who is stifled who was born in a subculture and feels the only out is through the subculture.” By the end of the play, most of the characters fail in obtaining their goals because they have all set their “ambitions in excess of their immediate limitations.”

Gordone originally offered the play to the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) an acting group rooted in the Black Arts Movement. He claimed the co-founder, Robert Hooks, turned it down because the NEC did not allow white actors in their theater troupe. Gordone and Warner produced a “showcase version” of the play at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1967, but “the response wasn’t too good.” Gordone and Warner lost all their money in the venture. But in 1969, the play was accepted for the “Other Stage Workshop,” in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Gordone directing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York, courtesy of

No Place to Be Somebody opened on May 4, 1969 to mixed reviews. New York Times reviewer, Walter Kerr, compared Gordone’s work to Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Other reviews called the play “engrossing,” “powerful,” and hailed it as one of the “unique” plays of 1969. On the contrary, influential African-American critic, Clayton Riley, blasted the play’s poor production and directorial choices. Riley also questioned Gordone’s “incomprehensible” dialogue, depiction of “self-hatred,” “contempt for Black people,” and his “desire to say too much.” Yet, Riley did state that Gordone possessed “splendid talents.” According to Gordone, Riley’s review “hurt Riley more than me [Gordone] … brother Clayton is uptight. He can’t face it that The [white] Man is helping one of his brothers.”

Headline from The [Arkansas] Hope Star, May 6, 1970, 5, accessed After the play’s opening, No Place to Be Somebody quickly moved to the Anspacher Theater for an extended period of time and opened for a limited run on Broadway in the ANTA Theater. Exactly one year after the play opened at the Shakespeare Festival, May 4, 1970, Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play was the first off-Broadway winner, and Gordone became known as the first African-American playwright to win the award. Yet he did not appreciate being categorized as a member of “black theater” or the Black Arts Movement, unlike Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight.

According to a 1982 interview, Gordone’s views on race “alienated many blacks.” Gordone argued, in a 1970 New York Times editorial piece, that writers like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) should write about more than “how badly the black man is treated and how angry he is.” Gordone believed such theater intensified the split amongst the races, and he questioned “Is black really ‘beautiful’? Or is that beauty always hidden underneath the anger and resentment?” According to Gordone, Jones’ writing was “egotistical, smug, angry (never violent), frightened, and damning of every white man in the world,” and Gordone took offense that Jones was “attempting to speak for all people of color in this country.”

According to Mance Williams, Gordone opposed the Black Arts Movement’s notion that the “Black Experience is a singular and unique phenomenon.” Gordone believed that African-American culture was one part of the larger American Culture, reasoning that without the “white experience,” there cannot be a “black experience.” Williams states that Gordone believed the races were interrelated, and helped create the unique qualities that defined the “white” and “black” races. In a 1992 interview, Gordone said “We need to redefine multiculturalism. There’s only one culture—the American culture, and we have many ethnic groups who contribute.”

Poet Amiri Baraka, a major figure in the Black Arts Movement, courtesy of

One possible explanation for Gordone’s belief in multiculturalism is the fact that he claimed his ancestral makeup consisted of “part Indian, part French, part Irish, and part nigger,” and he jokingly called himself “a North American mestizo.” Williams claims the playwright deemed the “color problem” could only be resolved through cooperation between the races, and that is why Gordone shied away from any radical political movements that could further divide the races. However, according to Gordone, his exclusion from the Black Arts Movement left him “Dazed, hurt, confused, and filled with self-pity.”

Gordone claimed his professional success put tremendous pressure on him. Winning the Pulitzer Prize made Gordone unhappy because he was acclaimed as a writer, rather than a director. According to Gordone, “every time you sit down at a typewriter, you’re writing a Pulitzer Prize. You’re always competing with yourself and you have to write something that’s as good or better.” In 1969, he began drinking heavily, hoping “get the muse out of the bottle” after the “long struggle.” During Gordone’s battle with alcoholism, he still worked in the theater industry. He got involved with a group called Cell Block Theater, which used theater as therapy as part of an inmate rehabilitation program.

In 1981, Gordone met Susan Kouyomjian and in 1982 they founded The American Stage, an organization devoted to casting minorities into non-traditional roles, in Berkeley, California. The American Stage productions included A Streetcar Named Desire with a Creole actor playing Stanley Of Mice and Men with two Mexican-American actors playing George and Lenny and The Night of the Iguana with an African American actor in the lead role of Shannon. According to Gordone, he and Kouyomjian never overtly wanted to provide more opportunities for “black, Hispanic and Asian actors,” but Gordone said “it is now very much my thing.” Their goal was to logically cast actors “so that you don’t insult the work’s integrity.” Gordone believed “innovative casting enhances the plays,” and makes them so exciting that “it’s almost like you’re seeing them for the first time.”

Charles Gordone, photo by Susan Kouyomjian Gordone, accessed African American Registry.

In a 1988 interview, Gordone continued commenting about the portrayal of race in contemporary literature and theater. Susan Harris Smith asked if theater critics viewed Gordone as “black first and a writer second?” He replied “Yes” and commented the practice was “racist.” He claimed he was a playwright trying to “write about all people . . . and to say I [Gordone] have a black point of view is putting me in a corner.” He believed African-American critics finally reached a “significant realization” about the theme of No Place to Be Somebody, that “if blacks walk willingly into the mainstream without scrutiny their identity will die or they will go mad.”

In 1987, Texas A&M University hired Gordone to teach in the English and Speech Communications Department. There, Gordone began embracing the American-western lifestyle or “cowboy culture.” The playwright stated, “The West had always represented a welcoming place for those in search of a new life,” and he found a “spirit of newfound personal freedom” within the American West. Gordone remained in Texas until his death on November 16, 1995. Friends and family scattered his ashes in a “traditional cowboy ceremony, with a riderless horse” near Spring Creek Ranch, Texas.

Learn more about Gordone via the Indiana Historical Bureau’s historical marker.

Maya Angelou: 20th Century Renaissance Woman

Born as Marguerite Johnson in 1928, Maya Angelou is a 20th Century renaissance woman who was catapulted into international fame with her best-selling books. However, she is much more than just an author and a poet. During her lifetime, she was able to hone in on her various talents as a singer, actor, dancer, filmmaker, professor, and political activist.

Angelou aligned with respected Civil Rights Leaders Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to bring about change in America. In the aftermath of Dr. King’s death, she switched gears and penned her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which peeled back the layers of her life and shared the turmoil of being a childhood rape victim.

It was her complicated life that transformed her into a phenomenal woman with unwavering confidence, poise, and an unparalleled ability to inspire mankind. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Jr. — and with additional commentary from Imani Perry, Farrah Griffin, and Brittney Cooper —we honor Maya Angelou’s legacy and international contributions in this episode of Black History in Two Minutes or So.

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Maya Angelou Estate

Executive Producers:
Robert F. Smith
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Dyllan McGee
Deon Taylor

Produced by:
William Ventura
Romilla Karnick

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Maya Angelou mourned both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

It was also in New York where Angelou became actively engaged with the civil rights movement. After hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Harlem, Angelou began immersing herself in the fight for racial equality, using her remarkable writing talents to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou, with actors Godfrey MacArthur Cambridge and Hugh Hurd, wrote and co-produced a "Cabaret for Freedom." The show raised so much money that Angelou was appointed the new director of SCLC's New York office, per The Nation, where she worked closely with King to organize and raise funds. Although she was living in Ghana during King's historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, she still participated, marching outside the American Embassy in Accra in solidarity.

While in Africa, Angelou became close with another expatriate living in Ghana: civil rights leader Malcolm X. Together, they formed the Organization of African American Unity in 1964, according to The History Makers. When Malcolm X was assassinated the following year, the organization fell apart and Angelou, grieving the loss of her friend, spent the next year living in Hawaii.

Angelou returned to New York in 1967, but in a tragic twist of fate, King was assassinated on Angelou's 40th birthday, just as she was getting ready to go on a nationwide tour promoting King's Poor People's Campaign. Devastated after the deaths of Malcolm X and King in such short succession, Angelou channeled her energy even more intensely into her writing.

5 Things to Know About Maya Angelou's Complicated, Meaningful Life

I t’s only fitting that the first week of U.S. National Poetry Month in April coincides with what would have been the 90th birthday of the poet Maya Angelou, who died May 28, 2014, at the age of 86. And Google is celebrating Angelou’s birthday with a Doodle.

But while Maya Angelou best known today for her writing &mdash as the author of more than 30 books and the recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees &mdash she had many different careers before becoming a writer, and all before the age of 40, as TIME pointed out in her 2014 obituary. Angelou’s jobs included: cook, waitress, sex-worker, dancer, actor, playwright, editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, Calypso singer, and cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess. In fact, Angelou’s name is more of a stage name than a pen name Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis in 1928, but in the 1950s came up with “Maya Angelou,” which is a portmanteau of sorts, by combining her childhood nickname and a riff on her then-husband’s surname.

In a Google Doodle marking her April 4 birthday, Angelou can be heard reading &ldquoStill I Rise,&rdquo alongside testimonials from her son Guy Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, Laverne Cox, Alicia Keys, America Ferrera, and Martina McBride. The 15-time Grammy-winner Keys calls Angelou a “renaissance woman,” while 14-time Grammy nominee McBride says Angelou inspired her to write her own songs. Winfrey, who has called Angelou a mentor, says that &ldquoMaya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she did it all. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence, and a fiery, fierce grace and abounding love.&rdquo

Personal Life

Maya became a mother by the age of seventeen to Clyde just after completing her high school studies. Tosh Angelo, her husband left her for utmost three years. Around 1960s Maya coupled with Vusumzi Make. The relationship lasted for a short time. She later got married to Paul du Feu, a carpenter but they then parted after eight years. Sadly, on 28, May 2014 Maya Angelou died. The funeral service was held at the &lsquoMount Zion Baptist Church.' Prominent people such as Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey attended the service.