Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
“The honorary duty of a human being is to love,
I am human, and nothing human can be alien to me.”
A voice of a generation, Maya Angelou, arrives in Portland for a one-night-only speaking engagement. Promoting her new book, released last year, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” is the sixth installment of her autobiography, featuring more poignant stories from her life, including her work with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Writer, poet, performer and director, Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Mo. Angelou’s older brother gave her the nickname “Maya.” In the mid-1930s, her mother’s boyfriend raped the 7-year-old Angelou. A few days after, she was forced to testify at his trial. Her rapist was found beaten to death in an alley, apparently murdered by some of Angelou’s uncles. Traumatized by the whole experience, Angelou stopped speaking altogether.
Angelou gained the will to speak again through her study of writing, literature and music. By the age of 12, she became known for her precocious intelligence. She moved to San Francisco in 1940. While attending high school, she won a scholarship in dance and drama to the California Labor School. In addition to her studies, Angelou worked to earn extra money, becoming San Francisco’s first African-American and first female streetcar conductor.
She held a succession of jobs in San Francisco and San Diego. She worked as a nightclub waitress, and later was turned down for enlistment in the United States Army after her background check revealed that the California Labor School was in fact suspected by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a training ground for future Communists.
In the early 1950s, she debuted as a dancer and singer of West Indian calypso music in a San Francisco cabaret. She also worked as a dancer in a production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” touring Europe and Asia.
Angelou moved to New York in the late 1950s to pursue her acting and singing careers, appearing in an off-Broadway play “Calypso Heatwave” (1957) and recording an album of calypso music. She also attended meetings of the Harlem Writers Guild and began to develop an interest in politics and civil rights.
In 1960, Angelou wrote a revue called “Freedom Cabaret,” which she and her friend Godfrey Cambridge produced, directed and starred in, in order to raise money for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She became the northern coordinator of the Leadership Conference in 1961.
In 1966, she returned to Los Angeles, where she wrote a two-act play, “The Least of These,” and a 10-part television series that dealt with the role of African culture in American life titled “Black, Blues, Black,” broadcast by National Educational Television in 1968.
Angelou published her first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” in 1970, encouraged by prominent writers such as James Baldwin. The story of the first 17 years of her life, up until the birth of her son, the memoir met with astonishing critical acclaim and popular success. Since then, Angelou has become one of the most celebrated writers in America and a distinctive voice of African-American culture in particular. Her performing career also continued, most notably in her debut performance on Broadway in Look Away (1975), for which she was nominated for a Tony Award, and her Emmy-nominated supporting turn in the hugely popular 1977 TV miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel.
Angelou also gained worldwide renown as a poet. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for her first volume of verse, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.”
In January, 1993 Angelou became the first poet since Robert Frost, in 1961, to take part in a presidential inauguration ceremony when she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
With some 50 honorary degrees at different institutions, she accepted a special lifetime appointment as a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 1981. Angelou is fluent in five languages, including the West African language of Fanti.