My history hero: Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

"She lived at a time when black women weren't meant to have a voice. But Maya did have a voice and she used it in so many ways": Naga Munchetty tells Spencer Mizen why Maya Angelou is her history hero...

Maya Angelou was “the ultimate boundary-breaker”, says Naga Munchetty. (Photo by Craig Herndon/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

The term ‘multi-talented’ barely seems to do Maya Angelou justice. She was an actress, screenwriter, dancer, musician, poet, author and leading civil rights activist, who campaigned alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. She endured a traumatic childhood, and was raped as an eight-year-old. She related this incident in her 1969 memoir I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, which became the first nonfiction bestseller by an African-American woman. Her position as one of America’s foremost cultural figures was confirmed when she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The term ‘multi-talented’ barely seems to do Maya Angelou justice. She was an actress, screenwriter, dancer, musician, poet, author and leading civil rights activist, who campaigned alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. She endured a traumatic childhood, and was raped as an eight-year-old. She related this incident in her 1969 memoir I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, which became the first nonfiction bestseller by an African-American woman. Her position as one of America’s foremost cultural figures was confirmed when she recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

When did you first hear about Maya Angelou?

When I read I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings while studying GCSE English at school. This was one of the first examples of a black woman writing that I’d come across – and, to my teenage mind, it was a revelation. I suddenly realised that not all literature was penned by Victorian or Edwardian novelists!

What was Angelou’s finest hour?

It’s impossible to point to one particular incident, as she did so many amazing things in her life. However, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings will always be special to me. It’s searingly honest. And it must have been so painful for her to confront her rape by her mother’s boyfriend. In retaliation, Angelou’s uncles murdered the boyfriend. Angelou was so traumatised by the whole episode that she became a virtual mute for years. It was an awful period in her life, and to confront that in this amazing book was an extraordinary achievement.

What kind of person was she?

Brave. Really brave. She lived at a time when black women weren’t meant to have a voice or thought capable of changing the world. But she never considered herself as the type of person who could be downtrodden and ignored. And she expressed this in so many ways. For example, she became the first black American female cable car conductor, she co-wrote a song with the singer Roberta Flack, she sang and performed in a film called Calypso Heat Wave. She upped sticks and moved to Ghana with a lover – that was not a conventional thing for a woman to do in the 1960s. She was the ultimate boundary-breaker.

She overcame so many setbacks in her life, from racism and sexual abuse to the sudden deaths of her friends Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. King was shot the day she turned 40 – as a result, she stopped celebrating her birthday for years.

Why do you consider her a hero?

For her incredible bravery, and because she’s inspired women across generations. Her life resonates with people 20 years older than me, and 20 years younger. You can see that in young artists like [British soul singer] Laura Mvula, whose song ‘Phenomenal Woman’ was inspired by Angelou’s poem of the same name.

What do you think Angelou would make of the political environment in the United States today?

One of her most famous quotes is: “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world but hasn’t solved one yet.” Never have these words been more pertinent than at the moment. I think she would be quite sad that we still insist on turning individual groups of people into scapegoats.

If you had the chance to interview Angelou today, what would you ask her?

I’d ask her: when did you first realise that you could be anything you wanted to be? And to what extent do you believe that women are still restricted by society’s limitations?

Are you interested in history?

I studied ancient history and modern history at A-level, and feel far more at home with these periods than, say, the Tudors. Having said that, I enjoy reading about anyone who lived an interesting life, and there’s no denying that Maya Angelou did that.

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Naga Munchetty presents the topical debate programme Sunday Morning Live on Sundays at 10am on BBC One, and is also a presenter for BBC Breakfast.