“You may not control all the events that happened to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Maya Angelou was a great author, poet, performer, artist, and activist who encountered many challenging times throughout her life. And yet, she was never defeated by these circumstances.
Maya grew up with an older brother named Bailey. When Bailey was five years old, and Maya was three years old, their parents got divorced. They were put on a train from Los Angeles, California to Stamps, Arkansas with tags on their arms. Their parents did not go with them, no adults accompanied them on this journey to go live with their Grandmother.
When Maya was around 6 years old, Bailey and Maya were taken to St. Louis to live with their mother. Their mother had a boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. When Maya’s mother left for work Mr. Freeman would wait all day for her return. At night, Maya would sleep with her mother and Mr. Freeman because of nightmares.
One day while the children were left at home with Mr. Freeman he convinced young Maya that he wanted her close to him. She thought it was nice that Mr. Freeman wanted to be near her. So she got in bed with him. Once they got close to each other Mr. Freeman proceeded to molest her. Afterwards, he told Maya not to tell anyone what had happened or he would kill Bailey. Maya being only seven years of age at the time did not understand what had happened and why it would provoke such a threat. For weeks, Mr. Freeman ignored her until he molested her again. Again, for weeks she was ignored. Maya felt rejected and hurt that Mr. Freeman was ignoring her. Once again she was molested and Mr. Freeman threatened to kill Bailey if Maya told anyone.
Then one night Mr. Freeman sent young Maya out to buy milk. When she came home to her mother’s apartment, Mr. Freeman raped her. He threatened to kill her if she screamed. After it happened Mr. Freeman threatened to kill Bailey if she told anyone. She was in great physical pain. That night Maya’s mother had come home. She worried that her seven year old daughter might be coming down with the measles. Later Maya heard her mother arguing with Mr. Freeman and was told in the morning that he left. When Bailey found her soiled underwear under the mattress, Maya was taken to the hospital. She did not confess what happened to her. Then in private nine-year-old Bailey convinced his sister that he was going to be fine, and that he would not tell anyone else. So Maya confessed and gave Mr. Freeman’s name.
Mr. Freeman spent a night and a day in jail. He was released early, though his jail sentence had not begun. A few days later the police came to the mother’s house and said the man was beaten to death. After that Maya stopped talking convinced that it was her fault the man had died. They were sent back to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya was mute for six years.
Bertha Flowers, a woman that lived near by the Grandmother’s place in Stamps, took Maya under her wing. Maya would go to her house and was introduced to writers such as Shakespeare and other poets. Mrs. Flowers made cookies and lemonade just for Maya. One day Mrs. Flowers told Maya to memorize a poem and at her next visit she wanted Maya to recite it aloud. She sent Maya home with a bag of cookies and the poetry book. For the first time in years, Maya was so excited that she ran to her Grandmother’s store and exuberantly shared details of her visit.
Maya Angelou, who was born Marguerite Johnson, went through many challenging times later in life. She persevered through every one of them. She went on to write about her life experiences in seven autobiographies, the most well-known of these is titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She fearlessly and boldly tells of her childhood experiences, the dark days, and the good times she had. Mrs. Flowers and her Grandmother were two of the people that saw her true potential and ushered her through her childhood.
Maya Angelou was later interviewed in Oprah Winfrey’s masterclass. In this masterclass she talks about love, forgiveness and friendship. Maya says, “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” This is what has been the most inspiring thing to me about Maya Angelou. Though she had faced some dark days, she had some good people in her corner that she acknowledges as “rainbows” and they helped her move forward through the cloudy days. Maya Angelou poured her heart and soul into her poetry, other writings and work as an activist.
If you are unfamiliar with Maya Angelou’s work I highly recommend you pick up a copy of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or any of her other collections of prose. Find her interview on Oprah’s masterclass, and the documentary of her life titled Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, which is on Apple TV.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” -Maya Angelou