A Fully Engaged Life
If we dare compare ourselves with Maya Angelou, most of us will feel we haven’t done anything with our lives.
Originally Marguerite Annie Johnson, Angelou is remembered today as a poet, occasional playwright and actress who recited and original poem at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration in 1993, the writer of the classic autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that was published in 1970, and the source of many inspirational quotes that find their way on social media. This captures a little of her varied career and a complete life.
I wrote a shorter profile four years ago after she had died but was recently inspired to examine her life and astrology further by listening to Caged Bird read by Angelou herself and by recent political and cultural events that would have her raising her fist from the grave.
Captured memorably in Caged Bird was her being molested and later raped as a child, the resulting trauma and its aftermath — but also coming out on the other side. Almost sixty years ago she expressed the reality of these events to the world, long before many were ready for it. Sadly, this aspect of her childhood continues to be relevant.
As a teenager Angelou worked as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco (we’ll discuss this later), in adulthood as a dancer and singer and occasional madam and prostitute. She toured Europe as part of a dance performance, was a journalist and activist in Ghana during the 1960’s. She was a single mother as a teenager but later married and divorced many times, with or without formal ceremony. Before and after her years in Africa, Angelou was associated with the Civil Rights movement in the United States and counted both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X among her friends. Increasingly she became known as an author, working in television and movies as well as writing poetry and autobiography. For years she was on the faculty of Wake Forest University and in her later years was prominent on the lecture circuit and was interviewed frequently. Things were going robustly as usual when she was discovered dead in May 2014 at the age of 86.
Maya Angelou was someone who encountered adversity, especially early in life, and from adversity developed wisdom, a strong sense of humanity and an unshakable confidence in her own possibilities and those of others. She also helped carry the struggle against racism, sexism, and social inequality. Future scholars of American culture could do well studying her life. Future psychologists should study her and others like her for factors that make for a “Victorious Personality”, embodied by whose lives triumphed – not just survived – over great obstacles that often defeat others. Of course we can also gain valuable insight from her astrological chart.
Angelou’s Magnificent Seven
Because Neptune and Pluto have prominent roles in Maya Angelou’s natal chart there’s a temptation to focus too much on them and miss other important features of her nativity. Let’s begin here by focusing on the seven visible planets. These, together with the Ascendant and twelve houses, constitute the main features of a person’s character and his or her world. Angelou’s birth was only two weeks after Fred Rogers, my previous profile in this series, and what a difference it makes!
Maya Angelou’s Solar Self
Since the Sun governs the sign Leo, Angelou’s Ascendant brings us immediately to her Sun position. Exalted in Aries and conjunct Jupiter, in its own “joy” in the Ninth House or Place, we have indication of her strong “solar” character. At its worst a solar person is utterly self-absorbed, a “hero in his/her own mind”, in the middle is appealing and charismatic but comes a little too strongly, and at its best is genuinely heroic. (I suspect Angelou had some of the second alternative, more of the third.) The Sun’s position in Angelou’s chart shows her strength and visibility to the world as well as her adventurous and inspired nature.
What does Jupiter add, with its conjunction to the Sun? The “greater benefic”moves slowly and brightly through the sky and brings the native into a larger filed of vision and activity, beyond the personal and particular to larger contexts. At its best, this combination of Sun-Jupiter allows one’s experience to benefit others.
As a cardinal fire sign, Aries is well-known for beginning things enthusiastically and then losing interest or leaving it to others to continue; the element fire responds well to excitement. Some people’s lives whirl around, leaving behind only inspirations and half-finished endeavors. Yet over the years hopping around from project to project, Angelou produced quality work in whatever she did.
The So-Called Malefics
For the lead actor to shine, others need to provide support, and we need to survey planets that affiliate themselves with her Sun. Importantly these solar supporters are Saturn and Mars, planets that often bring difficulty, yet it is when encountering difficulties that these planets are most important to an individual.
Saturn is configured by trine to the Sun and Jupiter. Saturn is in Sagittarius, the domicile sign of Jupiter. In its positive activity, Saturn contributes focus and patience. For somebody with this trine between Jupiter and Saturn, both in sect in her daytime chart, inspiration can be accompanied by action, action followed by completion.
Mars, in Aquarius and the Seventh House of marriage and partnerships, is the dispositor of Sun and Jupiter. Importantly, Mars is also the domicile of Scorpio, the sign of her Fourth House of family and ethnic/racial heritage.
Mars increases even further in importance because it’s right next to both the Lots of Fortune and Spirit. Because Angelou was born at a Full Moon, the Lots are opposite the Ascendant and here they are conjunct Mars. The red planet significantly influences Angelou’s rhythms of fortune and misfortune in life as well as where she places her mind and how she makes her choices. On a number of occasions Angelou has cited courage — the virtue associated with Mars — as the foundation of all the other virtues, for “without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” Without courage we’re tempted to give up when difficulties arise.
In the Seventh House or Place Mars also signifies those individuals with whom she had intense personal relationships.
Throughout her life, Maya Angelou had life-changing relationships with strong individuals. We could cite Martin Luther King, Malcolm X (subject of another profile in this series) and writer James Baldwin who helped her writing career and challenged her to write autobiography. She had the tendency to marry men who were as equally strong-willed as she, who were unable to give her the support and elbowroom she needed to proceed with her life. (Of course, she would have been difficult for most people to keep up with.) However, going through Caged Bird, the men depicted didn’t seem to come off very well: the women shone.
For people of the nature of Mars and Saturn, we need to include Maya’s family members, and none seems more authoritative than “Momma”. When she and her brother were toddlers, they were put on a train in California for Arkansas with a note “to who it may concern” attached to each, and at the end of the trip they found an extraordinary person who raised the two siblings until they were teenagers.
In the small town of Stamps, Arkansas during the Great Depression, within a deeply segregated area where white supremacy was supreme, “Momma” had the only black business in town, a country store that she managed along with her handicapped brother. She was deeply religious, generous to both blacks and whites, but also extremely tough, especially in attempting to teach Maya and her brother Bailey how to survive and even flourish in a dangerous environment where their existence was devalued and opportunities were few. “Momma” endured the many injustices in her life with dignity and grace but without losing her energy or courage. This woman combined the ferocity of Mars with the patience and self-containment of Saturn, providing relationship and modelling so that this girl could become the woman she was meant to be.
If we look at Mars’ dispositor and the ruler of the Lots of Fortune and Spirit, we return to Saturn: the planet of the melan-choler points to her self-discipline and a strong (maybe grim) sense of purpose. “Momma” and many others in her life seem to have exemplified the courageous Mars and the hardworking Saturn.
The Other Side of the Opposition
We continue with the Moon in Libra, opposing Sun and Jupiter in Aries. We know about Libra’s affability, a feature that allowed people to feel comfortable with Angelou, even with her Leo/Aries persona and the strength of Mars and Saturn in her chart. Moon in Libra also allowed her to observe herself and her environment. It also allowed her to attend to the needs, obstacles, and dreams of others.
Moon’s dispositor is Venus exalted in Pisces; the midpoint between the two is close to the Cancer/Capricorn axis, bringing Moon and Venus into direct contact. Along with Mercury they are in the difficult Eighth House or Place, disconnected to that of the Ascendant. Eighth House planets do not always operate in the native’s best interests and can bring complication in areas of life that should be simple.
Venus in Pisces can point to a strong sexual nature, not always to her benefit. Venus’ conjunction with Mercury would allow Venus to contribute to her developing understanding and expression. It also pointed to her strong feeling and aptitude for art of all kinds.
Angelou’s Mercury, in detriment and fall in Pisces, seems to be in an inauspicious zodiacal environment for this gifted writer and poet. Mercury is in sect and oriental in her diurnal chart – that helps a little, I guess. More important is that Venus, highly dignified in Pisces and right next to Mercury, is able to help out through her more favorable zodiacal condition. Listening to her recite her poetry, narrate from her books, or participate in her many interviews, you hear the musicality of her spoken language. Angelou had great appreciation for much of the sermonizing she heard in Stamps Arkansas as a child. Her love of language was not from playing with words but conveying meaning directly – and melodiously.
We note Saturn that is in prominent square to Mercury and Venus in Pisces. Angelou was successful as a performer as well as a writer; we must credit Saturn with the patient hard work that allowed her to become successful, as we must credit her Aries Sun for the desire to do all this.
Debilitated Mercury in square to Saturn also suggests Maya’s five years of elective mutism as a child and its role in developing her love of spoken language. She stopped speaking after her convicted rapist was found dead, presumably killed by other members of her family. Eight-year-old Maya decided that her words could kill others and she went into silence. Other behavior was as before and as a gifted person she might be quiet but not invisible.
Enter “Mrs. Flowers”, an older black woman who periodically visited Stamps from Little Rock, a friend of “Momma” and a lover of poetry and literature who took a strong interested in Maya. Mrs. Flowers read to and especially recited poetry to her, gave her stacks of books to read, and once ordered her to read everything in the children’s section of the school library. Most importantly she directed Maya to recite poetry out loud with the goal of memorizing the verses and how they sounded.
Later Angelou wrote that those five years also gave her a great chance to observe the world closely and to attend to others; this experience would become an education for her later creative life – along with a self-education program directed by another strong woman, Mrs. Flowers.
Arriving on Pluto and Neptune
Now you see why I withheld the outer planets until now.
Looking over Maya Angelou’s chart with outer planets included, we are immediately struck that Moon in Libra and Sun with Jupiter in Aries, are in square to Pluto. Many astrologers would call this a T-Square with Pluto at the apex and the Sun/Jupiter-Moon opposition at the base. This is not my preference, for we might miss the impact of the separate Pluto squares with the Sun and Moon. I see this simply as Pluto in square to both luminaries.
In her Twelfth House or Place, Pluto has a role in personal but also cultural and generational skeletons-in-the-closet that she wrote about compellingly. How does white supremacy work? How have black people confronted centuries slavery and white supremacy? Answers are complicated and often ugly and can carry into sexual exploitation of black girls and women. Angelou’s Pluto placement is a powerful receptacle for her understanding and articulation of these issues. (In some ways her life mirrors that of Fredrick Douglass of the 1800’s, who escaped from slavery and became an outstanding writer and orator and advocate of abolitionism. I would like to see his birth data!)
In aspect to Sun and Jupiter in Aries, Pluto can also provide strong determination and desire to live life as meaningfully as possible, not as a victim of circumstances. Pluto provides both an intensity and transformational quality to her character.
Pluto in square to the Moon is more personal, for the Moon is more about our subjective rhythms of mood and habit and is more a planet of everyday life and relationships. I suspect that the closer you were to her the more you would have to endure her emotional intensity and restlessness. Perhaps it is appropriate that she went through several marriages, for she may have been difficult to endure as a partner over a lifetime.
We also see that Neptune that is closely conjunct her Ascendant in Leo. We have the distinct possibility of living one’s life as a victim of circumstance, something Angelou dramatically did not do. Reading over her descriptions of life as a child, this was clearly an option, yet she also transformed this into a greater understanding and expression of how other individual and an entire race can become victimized. The Neptune placement may have also contributed to a fluidity that allowed her to assume many identities to go along with her many endeavors in life. Because Neptune is in opposition to Mars in the Seventh House or Place of Relationships, there is the possibility of poor judgment and self-deception in relationships. We must credit her Mars-like relationships – or relationships with Mars-like individuals – to oppose any tendency she may have had to play victim. For Angelou to become herself, Mars had to triumph over Neptune.
A Fourth Harmonic Person
It always warms the astrologer’s heart to find similar insight into an individual across different astrological techniques
from different eras. We already know, from the positions of Mars, Saturn, and the outer planets that Angelou’s life was one of struggle over personal and cultural limitations. Her Fourth Harmonic, a portrait of the square aspect of obstacle and forceful activity that is extended throughout her chart, confirms and amplifies this.
Some things will repeat themselves: close oppositions, squares, and conjunctions in the “radical” natal chart will carry over, their orb multiplied by the number of the harmonic. Squares in this harmonic chart will be semi-squares of 45 degrees or sesqui-quadrates of 135 degrees. Planets that appear in square to one another here will be multiples of 22.5 in the “radical” natal chart. Got it?
Some of us would notice that in Angelou’s chart Moon and Neptune are is close semi-square; less apparent is that Saturn is distant from both planets by segments of twenty-two and a half degrees each. If Saturn was a more malevolent planet in her chart, this would be a recipe for giving up, for becoming depressed and helpless in the face of adversity; instead Saturn manifested itself as rugged stubborn defiance and the motivation to work hard not to be helpless, not to give up in the face of odds.
The close square between Pluto and Sun appears as a close conjunction in the Fourth Harmonic chart; Venus, in semi-semi-square segments to both planets, is in square to both. Here we can find her background as victim of sexual abuse; we also find her use of music and dance as a path of personal redemption and transformation.
This leaves us the relationship of Mercury and Mars, again 22.5 degrees distant and appearing as in square in this harmonic chart. We find the forcefulness of her expression in her public performances and in her writing — for example, her outraged depiction of a school commencement address in Caged Bird. Her challenge would be to contain the forcefulness so as not to lose her eloquence: one can thank her “radical” Mercury-Venus conjunction for helping accomplish this. Being a woman instead of a man helped.
Maya Angelou Conducts a Streetcar
When Maya was a teenager she moved in with her mother in San Francisco. This woman, who she refers to as “Mother” in Caged Bird, was more sophisticated in the ways of the world than the “Mama” of her childhood in Stamps Arkansas, yet she was equally tough. “Mother’s” dominant occupation was working the gambling houses of the city. Here Maya witnessed not the intimidation of overt white supremacy but racism in many of its subtler urban forms. Nonetheless it was a more hospitable environment for her.
Bored with school and wanting some money in her pocket, sixteen-year-old Maya decided she wanted to be a street conductor, although there were no black street conductors. Maya responded to learning about this from disappointment to “haughty indignation” to that state of stubbornness where the mind is locked like the jaws of an enraged bulldog”. “Mother” admonished her to give it everything she had, that “Can’t do is like Don’t Care.” (1969, p. 257-8) Persistence and dogged determinism prevailed, as did lying about her age and background, and she too donned the blue suit of the train conductor.
Here are her transits for her birthday 1942 that represents this time in her life — I don’t have exact dates. Not surprisingly, transiting Uranus was in exact square to natal Mars, giving a defiant willfulness to her ambition. Transiting Saturn was in square to her natal Neptune, raising the stakes: if Neptune prevailed she may have become depressed and diminished. More fortunately, benefic Jupiter in Gemini was in opposition to Saturn and approaching squares to Mercury and Venus; attaining this job would be a confirmation of her ability to enact a vision for herself and her first entry into the larger adult world.
Her solar return for that year has Scorpio rising and Mars conjunct Jupiter in Gemini in the Eighth that were in sextile to Sun in the Sixth – for that year her life would be defined by her job, being an employee of San Francisco’s transportation company.
Astrological indicators important in other events in her life. In 1958, coincident with a progressed Full Moon, progressed Venus moving into Taurus, and Saturn return she decided to move from Los Angeles to New York City, to move from a successful career as a dancer to develop her writing skills further. At that time her decennials were Moon-Sun and the following year would be Moon-Jupiter, both supporting new developments in her life. She began friendships with writer James Baldwin, and in the following year met Martin Luther King and became involved in his organization as a coordinator. In early 1960 she entered a Saturn-Saturn period, a time of focused hard work and overlapping disappointments. For example, in 1965, two days after returning to the US from Africa to help Malcolm X on a new Pan-African project, the leader was assassinated.
In April 1968 King himself was assassinated (on her fortieth birthday) and Angelou went into a depression from which eventually emerged a creative frenzy, part of which was the writing of Caged Bird, the first of many autobiographical works. Her transits for King’s death and its aftermath included Saturn in Aries conjunct Sun and Jupiter, square Pluto; transiting Pluto in Virgo was also in opposition of Mercury. Jupiter had stationed on her Neptune-Mars square, probably doubling her frustration at first, sharpening her resolve later. This indicates a heavy and difficult time for her, a temporary collapse of ideals, and was soon accompanied by her midlife transits of Uranus oppose Uranus and Neptune square Neptune. When her book was published the following year, her Saturn decennials concluded, and she began a decade governed by Mars, accompanied by progressed Mars moving into Aries. Her major period governed by Mars for more than a decade following,
Maya Angelou had two qualities that made her different from many people. She was able to approach personal tragedy and adversity fully, not taking refuge in denial, dissociation, or rationalization. She was also able to see how her individual experiences, as unique as they have been, did not differentiate her from others but provided a common language and subjectivity, and that would help be her creative gift to the times in which she lived.
How did she accomplish this? Astrologically speaking she clearly had a chart that blended saturnine persistence and mars-like audacity and defiance. This could have been problematic for many — one typically doesn’t want the so-called malefics to be so powerful in one’s chart. Her Libran Moon and Pisces placements allowed her to be not only approachable but likeable.
Others may write with more academic knowledge about the resilience and adaptability of black culture to centuries of oppression, and in particular about the spiritual stoic nature that characterized the culture of her childhood. Others may write more knowingly of the importance of strong relationships with equally strong-willed women: her paternal grandmother and her biological mother in different ways taught her to blend toughness with flexibility and never to become discouraged. Beginning with “Momma” the rather mysterious “Mrs. Flowers”, Maya Angelou’s gifts of intelligence and presence attracted many people to help her along the way; they put the best of themselves into her. To become Maya Angelou it did indeed take a village, one with some remarkable people.