From the time we burst from our mother’s womb, gasping for air and seeking comfort, until the moment our souls leave the flesh of this physical realm, we will have the propensity to experience many firsts. Our first steps, words, kiss, and other monumental occasions are recorded by scribe or retained to memory in the annals of history as a reminder of those achievements. And in a world where historic first are applauded with adulation, some of the seemingly minor accomplishments are overlooked in what develops the persona of the individual you will become.
Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, would be become the next pioneer to blaze a trail of first steps which would endear her to her peers and make her highly regarded to the world at large. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of seventeen (17), and brought her international acclaim and recognition. With the publication of that manuscript, she became respected as a spokesperson of Black people and women, with her work being reflective as a shield of Black culture. Her accruement as a renaissance woman would allow her to travel the globe, and while living in Accra, Ghana in the early 1960s, she became close friends with Malcolm X. Upon her return to the United States in 1965, she helped him to build a new civil rights organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The former Mr. Little would be assassinated soon after its formation, but her efforts in the Civil Rights movement did not stop there. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Ms. Angelou to organize a march, but that too would be disrupted by his assassination on her 40th birthday, April 4th.
In a lifetime of firsts, Angelou would be the first Black woman to write a screenplay with the 1972 release of Georgia, Georgia, which was produced by a Swedish film company and filmed in Sweden. A lifetime of achievements and honors would follow and lay in her path. A supporting role in Alex Haley’s mini-series Roots (1977), being a writer and composer for Roberta Flack, to in 1993, reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton; the first poet to make an augural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. During her lifespan she had gone from front woman/business manager of prostitutes, being a prostitute herself, restaurant cook, calypso dancer and unheralded writer to an icon that mentored the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.
What’s most impressive about her story is that before graduating from high school, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, California. This may have been an additional catalyst that fueled her desire work hard and enticed her hunger for more. Her mother, Vivian Baxter, encouraged her to pursue the position in the 1940s. In a “Super Soul Sunday” interview with Winfrey in May 2013, her mom told her that if she wanted her “dream job,” she would need to arrive earlier than the secretaries and work harder than anyone else. Angelou advised that she wanted to be employed by the company desperately, stating: “I loved the uniforms. I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts… And they had caps with bills on them and they had form-fitting jackets,” Angelou recalled. She would write about her streetcar experiences in the last of her autobiographies titled, Mom & Me & Mom. There’s a memorial to Maya Angelou at the San Francisco Railway Museum. Earlier this year, she received a lifetime-achievement award from the Washington, D.C. – based Conference of Minority Transportation Officials during a program celebrating “Women Who Move the Nation.” And much like the streetcars that run on the steel rails on the streets of San Francisco, there were no slots that held Angelou from overcoming the obstacles that lay in her path. There were no underground cables to hinder her ability to spread her infinite knowledge, wisdom and charity around the world. The electricity that flowed within her propelled her to the highest of heights after enduring the lows of disenfranchisement, disappointment, divorce and death. Let Dr. Angelou be a lesson that despite whatever you believe is obstructing you from the happiness, success and abundance you wish to attain, perseverance and being willing to take the first step is necessary to affect that change. “We Are The Change!” I’m gone! (b)
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