Maya Angelou: Sex Worker History is Part of Her Esteemed Legacy
Maya Angelou was not ashamed of her sex worker history and neither are we. One of the most prolific poets in history, Maya Angelou’s work has touched the lives of millions of people around the globe. A best-selling author, civil rights leader, educator, and icon, Maya Angelou was also a mother, daughter, and sex worker.
Maya Angelou Background & Sex Worker Past
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou spent most of her childhood with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. When Maya Angelou was just eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Maya Angelou reported the assault, and the man was arrested and subsequently murdered. Fearful of her voice, this trauma left her mute for years. Maya Angelou’s childhood was the subject of her first autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. In 1974, her second autobiography, Gather Together In My Name, set in the 1940s after World War II, chronicles the 2 years of her life after the birth of her son and gives details about her life as a sex worker.
At the age of 18, Maya Angelou moved to California from Arkansas, hoping to make a new life for her and her infant son, Clyde Guy Johnson. She held a series of jobs as a cook and a waitress before becoming a madam for a lesbian couple. The brothel business was very lucrative for Maya Angelou but short-lived after a disagreement with the couple, fearing arrest and losing custody of her son. Maya Angelou returned to California, this time engaging in sex work as a prostitute.
Maya Angelou’s Accolades & Professional Accomplishments
During the Civil Rights Movement, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou served as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the 1960s, Maya Angelou worked as a journalist for the Arab Observer and the African Review in Egypt and Ghana subsequently. Maya Angelou was also a dancer, actress, and playwright, who won awards for directing and performing on Broadway and in Hollywood.
In 1981, Maya Angelou was appointed professor of American studies at Wake Forest University without a formal graduate education. The world recognized her life and brilliance. Maya Angelou was a powerhouse who published 36 books and delivered poetry for the inaugurations of two American presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She eulogized Nelson Mandela in 2013 with a poem titled, “His Day Is Done.” Maya Angelou was awarded a multitude of honorary degrees and is the first Black woman to appear on American coinage.
Including Experience as a Sex Worker in Maya Angelou’s Legacy
These widespread accomplishments are what mainstream outlets and most people reference when discussing Maya Angelou. Erasing her experiences as a sex worker are rooted in respectability politics. The lessons learned and courage mustered through her experiences as a sex worker allowed Maya Angelou to seek a more extraordinary life for herself and for her son. She unapologetically divulged this portion of her journey so that others, particularly young people, might see the fruits of persevering through the challenges that accompany sex work.
Maya Angelou transitioned from this life on May 28, 2014, leaving her son and a lasting legacy shared with the world. The wisdom Maya Angelou shared with the world was cultivated, in part, by her experiences as a sex worker. Maya Angelou has a litany of accolades to share, but her lasting legacy is her acceptance of self, love of self, and her reminder that, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
(Adapted from the Poetry Foundation)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Random House (New York, NY), 1969, many reprintings.
Gather Together in My Name, Random House (New York, NY), 1974, many reprintings.
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas, Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
The Heart of a Woman, Random House (New York, NY), 1981.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Random House (New York, NY), 1986, many reprintings.
A Song Flung up to Heaven, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou (omnibus edition of all six autobiographies), Modern Library (New York, NY), 2004.
Mom & Me & Mom, Random House (New York, NY), 2013.
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, Random House (New York, NY), 1971, many reprintings.
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, Random House (New York, NY), 1975, many reprintings.
And Still I Rise, Random House (New York, NY), 1978, new version published as Still I Rise, illustrated by Diego Rivera, edited by Linda Sunshine, Random House (New York, NY), 2001, many reprintings.
Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?, Random House (New York, NY), 1983, many reprintings.
Poems, four volumes, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
Now Sheba Sings the Song (illustrated poem), illustrations by Tom Feelings, Dutton (New York, NY), 1987.
I Shall Not Be Moved, Random House (New York, NY), 1990, many reprintings.
On the Pulse of Morning, Random House (New York, NY), 1993, many reprintings.
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, Random House (New York, NY), 1994, many reprintings.
A Brave and Startling Truth, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women, Random House (New York, NY), 1995, new edition published as Phenomenal Woman, paintings by Paul Gaugin, edited by Linda Sunshine, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
Amazing Peace, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.
The Poetry of Maya Angelou, 1969.
Contributor of poems in The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets and to Mary Higgins Clark, Mother, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Lessons in Living, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
Even the Stars Look Lonesome, Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Mother: A Cradle to Hold Me, Random House (New York, NY), 2006.
Letter to my Daughter, Random House (New York, NY), 2008.
Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship (selection from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) illustrated by Etienne Delessert, Redpath Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1986.
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (poem), edited by Sara Jane Boyers, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1993.
(With others) Soul Looks Back in Wonder, illustrated by Tom Feelings, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.
My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me, photographs by Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Crown (New York, NY), 1994.
Kofi and His Magic, photographs by Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Crown (New York, NY), 1996.
Angelina of Italy, illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Izak of Lapland, illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Renie Marie of France, illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Mikale of Hawaii, illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Godfrey Cambridge) Cabaret for Freedom (musical revue), produced at Village Gate Theatre, New York, 1960.
The Least of These (two-act drama), produced in Los Angeles, 1966.
(Adapter) Sophocles, Ajax (two-act drama), produced at Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 1974.
(And director) And Still I Rise (one-act musical), produced in Oakland, CA, 1976.
(Author of poems for screenplay) Poetic Justice (screenplay), Columbia Pictures, 1993.
(Author of lyrics, with Alistair Beaton) King, book by Lonne Elder, III, music by Richard Blackford, London, 1990.
FILM AND TELEVISION SCRIPTS
Georgia, Georgia (screenplay), Independent-Cinerama, 1972.
(And director) All Day Long (screenplay), American Film Institute, 1974.
(Writer of script and musical score) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, CBS, 1979.
Sister, Sister (television drama), National Broadcasting Co., Inc. (NBC-TV), 1982.
(Writer of poetry) John Singleton, Poetic Justice (motion picture), Columbia Pictures, 1993.