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The ‘Phenomenal Woman’ With Trinidadian Roots Is No More

Published on May 28 2014, at 11:41 pm

dr-maya-angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou.

By NAN Staff Writer

News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Thurs. May 29, 2014: Many knew her as the poet extraordinaire who gave the world the classic ‘Phenomenal Woman.’ But few knew the roots that had nurtured that voice stretched to the West Indian island of Trinidad & Tobago.

Yesterday that voice was lost to the world forever, as renown author and poet Dr. Maya Angelou, joined the ancestors at the age of 86.

Angelou had been suffering from heart problems in recent years. She passed away at her North Carolina home in Winston-Salem, Angelou’s family said in a statement on Wednesday.

Angelou, then Marguerite Johnson, was the second child born to Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a Trinidadian American nurse, whose father and grandfather had both migrated to the U.S. from Trinidad & Tobago on a banana boat and jumped off in Tampa, Florida.

There her grandfather learned to roll cigars and took care of his family even though he was an undocumented immigrant. He managed to evade immigration agents successfully all his life as Angelou wrote in ‘MOM & ME & MOM’ and “spoke often and loudly with pride at being an American citizen.”

“No one explained to him that simply wanting to be a citizen was not enough to make him one,” she added.

A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou was partially descended from the Mende people of West Africa.

Again as Angelou tells it:

“The family became known as the “Bad Baxters.” If someone angered any of them, they would track the offender to his street or to his saloon. The brothers (armed) would enter the bar. They would station themselves at the door, at the ends of the bar, and at the toilets. Uncle Cladwell would grab a wooden chair and break it, handing Vivian a piece of the chair.

He would say, “Vivian, go kick that bastard’s ass.”

Vivian would ask, “Which one?”

Then she would take the wooden weapon and use it to beat the offender.”

Her mother met and married Bailey Johnson, a doorman and a navy dietitian and Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Her mother, as Angelou has said in life, was devoted to a great number of causes — from union rights to civil rights to feminism. She worked as a nurse, a real estate agent and, almost unbelievably, as a merchant marine.

The marriage ended after three years. Angelou’s young life was marked by trauma. At age 8 she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered.

Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated in her autobiography, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …”

She worked in a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, night-club dancer and performer. In 1957, riding on the popularity of Caribbean calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, ‘Miss Calypso,’ which was reissued as a CD in 1996.

She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film ‘Calypso Heat Wave,’ in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.

In ‘MOM & ME & MOM’ she gives more insight into her maternal grandfather and her uncles as singers: “The Baxters were proud of their ability to sing. Uncle Tommy and Uncle Tootie had bass voices; Uncle Cladwell, Uncle Ira, and Uncle Billy were tenors; Vivian sang alto; and Aunt Leah sang a high soprano (the family said she also had a sweet trem- olo). Many years later, I heard them often, when my father, Bailey Johnson Sr., took me and my brother, called Junior, to stay with the Baxters in St. Louis. They were proud to be loud and on key. Neighbors often dropped in and joined the songfest, each trying to sing loudest.”

After meeting novelist James O. Killens in 1959, Angelou began to focus on a career as a writer and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African-American authors, including John Henrik Clarke.

In 1960, after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and hearing him speak, she and Killens organized “the legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator.

Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.

She would go no to write a total of seven autobiographies including:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969): Up to 1944 (age 17)

Gather Together in My Name (1974): 1944–1948

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976): 1949–1955

The Heart of a Woman (1981): 1957–1962

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986): 1962–1965

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002): 1965–1968

Mom & Me & Mom (2013): overview

Angelou’s long and extensive career also includes poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting and public speaking.

Many Caribbean Americans took to social media to comment on Angelou’s passing, few realizing that Angelou was of Caribbean heritage.

Caribbean American Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, for her part called Angelou, “a woman of conviction, dedicated to her belief in the capacity of her words to transcend boundaries.”

Clarke, in a statement also described Angelou “as a woman of courage, whose acts defined her character, and whose leadership on civil rights inspired activists around the world.”

“Let us remember Dr. Maya Angelou with her own words: ‘Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope,” the congresswoman said last night.

President Barack Obama also praised the late Maya Angelou on Wednesday, calling her “one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.”

Bill Clinton, who invited Angelou to recite a poem at his presidential inauguration in 1993, issued a statement saying, “America has lost a national treasure; and Hillary and I, a beloved friend.”

In her last tweet on May 23rd, Angelou said, “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

 


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