Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1968, originally came from St. Louis, MO, and became a renowned novelist, scholar, poet, and orator. When she died in May, 2014, she was an extremely well-known and prominent participant in countless nationally prominent events and celebrations. Her voice was that of black women everywhere who had undergone countless and unimaginable tragedies in their lives, yet prevailed and thrived because of their abilities to draw on their own inner strength and gifts. This paper will summarize the life and works of Angelou as an orator.
Angelou described her father as a defeated and lonely man who turned to alcohol and women to fill the void left by “having been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur” (Fox.) Her mother was a nurse who also worked as a card dealer and at various times, the owner of a hotel. As a three-year-old, Angelou’s parents ended their marriage and she was sent with her brother to live with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas, deep in the heart of the hate filled, racist Jim Crow South. However, periodically both children visited St. Louis to see their mother, and at one point when she was seven or eight years of age, she was raped by the boyfriend of her mother. Eventually she told her brother, who reported this to the family, and ultimately her attacker was tried and convicted of the crime; however, prior to beginning serving his sentence, he was killed, most likely by Angelou’s uncles, according to her account. Her childish interpretation of those events caused Angelou to believe that it was her fault that the man was killed, and she subsequently stopped speaking for five years. It was only through her love of literature that Angelou was ultimately able to resume using language to express herself. Her first and autobiographical novel, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” became an international bestseller and demonstrated that the autobiography of a black woman was of tremendous interest to people everywhere.
While Angelou was renowned as an activist, an actress, a poet, and an orator, in particular her skills as a speaker left a lasting impression on all who listened to her words. As a public speaker, she was inspirational with her wisdom, and was able to evoke an emotional response with just a few words or lines; she also struck a chord with people because of her tremendous skills in advocating her point of view, and standing up for what was good and right when so many things were going wrong. She was a voice representing people who were in pain, and she was passionate about her audience as well as their potential ability to reach their dreams by focusing on their inner selves. She was a constant public presence who focused on the positive aspects of life, making her a powerful example of triumph over tremendous tragedy and struggle.
The themes of Angelou’s speeches, which were delivered at commencements, presidential inaugurations, and other formal occasions that were attended and viewed by millions, remained those that derived from her personal story: triumphing over adversity, racism, the connection between love and hope, the need to overcome defeat by not being defeated, and the ability of people to rise above their dire circumstances and prevail. Angelou’s style of speaking was to surprise her audience, beginning in unusual ways such as singing a song, speaking in several different languages, and clearly relishing her role as a performer/public speaker by reveling in her task of speaking to this audience. She often related true stories in her speeches, drawing her audience in by engaging them in the events as she recounted them. Another compelling technique used by Angelou was making it impossible to ignore how sincere and honest she was in speaking about extremely personal and emotional matters, so that she was able to convey the impression that she was involved in an intimate conversation with each audience member. Her language was eloquent, her voice and tone extremely rich, and was often described as “melodious” because of the lyrical nature of her delivery. Angelou was memorable in every way, but as a public speaker she turned up at significant events frequently because hers was a style that reinforced her identity as a unique icon in American literary, social, and political culture for decades.
- Fox, M. “Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86.” The New York Times 21 May 2014: A 1. Print.