An Arkansas history minute: Maya Angelou’s time in Arkansas

No one would have imagined what would become of the small, three-year-old girl when she arrived in Arkansas in 1931.  Today, she is recognized around the world as one of the most acclaimed writers of modern times.  Maya Angelou overcame a life of poverty, racism, and violence to become one of the nation’s most celebrated writers.

Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928 in deep poverty in a dangerously unstable family.  Her parents broke up several times and ended up abandoning her and her older brother.  At the age of three, she and her brother were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in the small town of Stamps in Lafayette County.  Henderson and her husband had built a very successful general store which allowed them to not only withstand the poverty of the Great Depression but allowed them to help their neighbors.  In Stamps, the family was subject to racism, from segregated schools to being refused service by doctors and dentists to terrifying raids by the Ku Klux Klan.  In spite of this, her grandmother taught Angelou the importance of family, hard work, and faith.

This relative stability would end in 1936 when her father arrived suddenly in Stamps and took Angelou back to St. Louis to live with her mother.  Not long afterward, her mother’s live-in boyfriend raped the eight-year-old girl.  Her attacker was convicted but sentenced to only a day in jail.  Shortly after his release, he was killed, possibly by members of her own family in retaliation.  So traumatized by these events, Angelou lost her ability to speak.  Only the help of a family friend, who tutored her and instilled a love of great literature in her, allowed her to begin talking again five years later.

She struggled for several more years.  As a teenager, she briefly dropped out of high school but returned and graduated at the age of 17, three weeks before giving birth to her son.  She took a number of different jobs, including work as a singer and actress.  She came to know a number of prominent African-American artists who encouraged her to move to New York and work as a writer by 1960.

In 1969, she chronicled the story of her early life in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  The graphic depictions of assaults and exploitation shocked many, but the book served as a powerful testament to one woman’s determination to succeed in spite of so much against her.  Angelou was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970.  She would write many more popular books and eventually become the nation’s poet laureate in 1993, reading one of her poems at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

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