A Sacred Cow of Po Biz: Maya Angelou

Image:  Maya Angelou

Another installment for the “Sacred Cow” collection.  

The late Maya Angelou was a poetaster, who also dabbled in the writing of essays, songs, and plays.  She made her way from prostitute to professor to world-wide, belovèd star on little writing talent.  She did have abundant quantities of the gift of gab and schmooze.

Wearing Many Hats 

Critic Helen Razer has said of Maya Angelou’s verse scribblings: “I won’t effectively urge you to critically read her poems, which are almost uniformly shit.”  Razer still offered a certain level of praise for Angelou’s social activism.

Other more generous souls have dubbed the former “madam” a “renaissance woman” for all of her so-called accomplishments such as poet(aster), essayist, songwriter, playwright, editor, actor, dancer, director, historian, and professor. 

Included in Angelou’s long list of professions is, indeed, the one considered the oldest profession; she worked as both a prostitute and a madam.  In her 1974 memoir, Gather Together in My Name, the former sex worker details her stint in that field of endeavor.

Angelou was also not shy about weighing in on politics: she was a  “communist sympathizer” and strong supporter of Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro.  Joining such luminaries as Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam and the activists seeking release from prison the cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, she supported many left-wing causes in the name of civil rights.

As Angelou’s sycophants seek to elevate her as a renaissance women, the more clear-eyed critics realize she was little more than a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

The late poetaster, Maya Angelou, dabbled in the writing of essays, songs, and plays in addition to verse.  After dipping into numerous professions of  editor, dancer, director, actor, she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in Alex Haley’s Roots. and she clawed her way from the degrading world of prostitution to become to world-wide, belovèd star, on little talent other than the gift of gab and the penchant for schmooze.

The Phony Professor

When Angelou was not traveling and delivering speeches, she occupied the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, where she “taught” since 1981.  Hardly qualifying as a “professor,” Angelou taught only one course per semester, and students have reported that she occupied no office on campus.

According to John Meroney’s “The Real Maya Angelou,” “The office listed for her in the Wake Forest telephone directory is a storage closet in a building far from the main part of campus.”  

Before the site finally eliminated her from its inclusion, her rating on “Rate My Professors” boasted a measly 2.6 on a 5-pont scale.”  One student had commented about the good Dr.’s teaching ability:  “Arrogant, spiteful, rude, boring – and possessing a thoroughly mediocre intellect. The only thing that humanizes her is the suspicion that her incessant bullying stems from an awareness of just what a fraud she is.”

Star-struck Margaret Feinberg writes a glowing memory of an Angelou class, yet at the same time reveals the poverty of Angelou’s teaching style; the phony professor spent the first three weeks of a semester having the students learn one anothers’ names!

Angelou was awarded numerous honorary doctorates, and she took full advantage of them, even calling herself “Dr.” Maya Angelou, an unearned title; she did not earn a doctoral degree.  Actually, she never even earned a bachelors or masters degree, having never attended college at all.

Of course, Ms Angelou has the last laugh on her critics regarding her lack of academic acumen: although she occupied no academic office space, she now boasts a residence hall standing in her name:  Maya Angelou Hall!  

Image: Maya Angelou Hall

Since 2002, The “Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity” has been studying the “racial and ethnic disparities in health care and health outcomes.”

Also in Angelou’s name was created the “Maya Angelou Presidential Chair” at Wake Forest, currently occupied by the unhinged Melissa Harris-Perry.  Sadly, Harris-Perry’s ranting is what currently passes for education in many of today’s universities, but note that MSNBC did have the good sense to fire her from her news anchor position. 

Other Gigs

Angelou teamed up with Target and the Poetry Foundation to create a project that introduces children and adults to poetry. The project is called “Dream in Color.”  Few individuals have exploited the color of their skin to the degree that the former Marguerite-Johnson-turned-Maya-Angelou did, Barry-Soetoro-turned-Barack-Hussein-Obama, notwithstanding.

Likely, Angelou’s best gig, the one formidably suited for her level of talent, was her stint with Hallmark Greeting cards. Two samples of the drivel she created for Hallmark:  “The wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy, the wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim”  and “Life is a glorious banquet, a limitless and delicious buffet.”


Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis on 4 April 1928. At age seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided this information only to her brother, but later she learned that one of her uncles had killed the man who raped her. 

She claims melodramatically that fearing that her words had killed a man, she claims incredibly that she refused to speak and did not utter a word until she reached age thirteen. She periodically lived with her mother and grandmother, who introduced her to literature.  

Leaving high school for a short period, she became a cable car conductor in San Francisco. She returned to high school, and then she gave birth to a son a few weeks after graduation. Her life was difficult, but she never gave up on her interests in the arts, dancing, and writing. 

Marguerite Johnson Becomes Maya Angelou 

After marrying Tosh Angelos, a Greek sailor, she got a job as a nightclub singer. She changed her name from Marguerite to Maya and altered the Angelos to Angelou and became “Maya Angelou” (pronounced “angelo” not “angelu.”) 

Angelou toured Europe with a production company, studied dance with Martha Graham, and released an album titled Calypso Lady in 1957. Her interest in writing became strong, and she moved to New York, where she joined a Harlem writing group. She continued acting in off Broadway plays. 

Years Abroad 

In 1960, Angelou met and married South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make; the couple relocated to Cairo, Egypt, where Angelou worked as editor of the English language weekly paper The Arab Observer

After this marriage dissolved, Angelou and her son moved to Ghana, where she worked as a music instructor at the University of Ghana; she also served as an editor at The African Review, while writing for The Ghanaian Times.

Returning to America 

After Angelou returned to America in 1964, she began her writing career in earnest, producing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first autobiography, which was published in 1970. This first autobiography gave Angelou national recognition. In all, Angelou penned seven autobiographies. 

Angelou also wrote a book of essays titled, Letter to my Daughter, despite the fact that she had no daughters. Angelou’s play Georgia, Georgia was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Presidential Appointments 

President Gerald Ford appointed Angelou to serve on the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. For President Jimmy Carter, she served on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman. At President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, she read her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning.” 

Most Noted Poetic Attempt:  “Phenomenal Woman” 

One of Angelou’s most famous pieces is “Phenomenal Woman.” This piece is quite accessible, as are all of her so-called poems.  Angelou’s mystique is in her ability to perform many tasks and perform them well enough to make many people believe she is in fact a phenomenal woman, instead of simply an accomplished schmoozer. 

A Self-Invention:  Famous for Being Famous

Angelou has explained that she decided to invent herself because she did not like the inventions that others had invented for her. She was six feet tall, making her physically imposing. Angelou’s main talent was indeed in making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—no small feat.  

Despite her lack of true talent in any of her chosen fields of dabbling, she managed to gain recognition in many of them.   As some accomplishment-free yet widely celebrated folks like the Kardashians and Zsa Zsa Gabor are famous for being famous, Maya Angelou was noted for being noted.

Angelou did have the ability to make people notice her, but even more sweet for her was her ability to make herself seem accomplished when, in fact, her talent was mediocre at best. 

Still, the fact that Marguerite Johnson could transform her life in such a gigantic, flamboyant manner into the highly successful “Dr. Maya Angelou” on such little poetic talent speaks volumes for the grit and tenacity the woman possessed; that is something to be admired, even if not emulated.

Sources for “Maya Angelou: Prostitute, Poetaster, Phony Professor”


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