A warrior for equality, tolerance and peace
by Hannah Knight
Suitable for Key Stage 3/4
To celebrate the life and teachings of Maya Angelou.
Preparation and materials
- For a video of Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem (1993), visit http://youtu.be/OQQThtav41o.
- For an image of Maya Angelou, visit www.achievement.org/autodoc/photocredit/achievers/ang0-010.
- For an image of her reception of the Medal of Freedom, see www.achievement.org/autodoc/photocredit/achievers/ang0-014.
- For her poem, ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, see www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings/.
- The story behind the storyteller
Maya Angelou was a woman of many talents; over the course of her phenomenal life she became renowned as an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer.
Maya was born in St Louis, Missouri. Following her parent’s separation in 1931, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, which at the time was racially divided. Maya’s emotional rollercoaster did not stop there: at the age of eight, she was sexually attacked by someone she trusted. This was a tragedy that ended in more tragedy. When news suddenly emerged that a member of Maya’s family had killed her attacker, Maya felt that her words had resulted in his death and from that day she fell silent and did not speak another word for five long years.
At the age of thirteen, Maya moved to San Francisco and it was then that she felt confident enough to speak again. She studied dance and drama at Mission High School and dropped out of school to become the first African-American cable-car conductor. At an early age, she was exposed to many displays of racial discrimination, which later fuelled her passion for equal rights. They even led to her contributing to the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King Jnr. It was here that Maya’s passion for writing transpired.
- Communication is the key to greatness
Read the poem, ‘I know why the caged bird sings,’ to students.
Ask the students what they think Maya Angelou is addressing in this poem.
This controversial poem inspired millions to reflect on the violence, sexual abuse and racial discrimination that relentlessly swept the USA. In other poems, Maya turns her attention to the lives of black people in the USA from the time of slavery to the rebellious 1960s when violence was used to enforce equality. Her themes deal broadly with the painful anguish suffered by black people who were forced into obedience and basic survival. Writing was Maya’s greatest weapon and the public applauded her peaceful protests, realizing that simple communication could be the key to greatness.
- The nation’s warrior
Almost immediately, Maya Angelou became a respected and well-loved global icon: she read in schools, became the first black woman to compose a screenplay and even read the first inaugural poem that was usually presented by a President coming into office. Americans all across the country watched as she read ‘On the pulse of morning’, which calls for peace, racial and religious harmony and social justice.
Play the video.
- ‘Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.’
What can we learn from Maya Angelou? Here are some of her famous quotes which could help to bring our communities closer together.
‘Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.’
This is about bestowing hope and caring on people around us.
‘We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.’
This reflects on how we should treat everyone equally regardless of sex, race, age or sexual orientation, with the respect and kindness that we all deserve.
'If you're always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.’
This considers how we should celebrate being individuals. We are all different, with different traits and talents and we should focus on expressing ourselves rather than fitting in with the crowd.
Time for reflection
Close your eyes. Imagine a time when schools would have been divided by race, when women were refused an education and where students were too afraid to show their true identities. Imagine how sad it would be to be separated from our loved ones just because they were different. Let’s take this time to be thankful for equality and how we can live together in peace, regardless of our different origins, income, gender and sexual orientation. At the end of the assembly I’d like you to all think of some acts of kindness you can bestow on others that will make them feel loved and appreciated within the community.
‘Black or white’ by Michael Jackson.