Maya Angelou, Literary Icon and Brothel Manager
Updated: Mar 7, 2019
Maya Angelou had a diverse career spanning five decades — first as a singer and dancer, then as a journalist and civil rights activist, and later as a memoirist, poet and screenwriter. She was also a sex worker.
The details of Maya Angelou’s remarkable life are beautifully documented in her memoirs; I know why the caged bird sings recounts her experiences as a child in the Jim Crow era south. Her second memoir, Gather Together in My Name, details her experiences as a young adult, unclinding her time working as a brothel owner and prostitute.
When Maya was eighteen years old, Angelou worked as a waitress in San Diego to support herself and her infant son. During one of her shifts, she caught the eye of some regulars, a lesbian couple who turned a few tricks to make ends meet. She agreed to join them in their home for sunday supper. The couple kissed and playfully teased each other in front of Angelou who, in a swell of homophobia, grew offended and repulsed by their behavior. The two women offered a joint to Angelou. After inhaling the substance, Angelou started coughing violently. The hosts, amused by this, laughed at her and stoned Angelou became convinced that they would let her choke to death. Judging the women as “inconsiderate” and “sinful”, she decided to seek revenge for these perceived slights. She offered to run the brothel for them, lied about having experience in this field, and promised them she would make them all “thousandaires”.
Despite her inexperience, she ran the business well. She hired a security guard from the restaurant she worked at, a man named Hank. He stayed at the brothel during business hours to watch out for police and keep track of the money. She then convinced white cab drivers to drop off customers between ten and two a.m. by promising them a cut, which was standard practice. Angelou created an elaborate system of chits, or coupons, to keep track of what she owed her employees and cab drivers. Each trick cost $20, the cab driver got $5, $7.50 went to the girls, $7.50 to Angelou, and $2.50 went to the security guard. She distributed vouchers to the cab drivers, and when a customer asked about a ‘house of ill repute’, the cab driver would give them the voucher and took them to the house. The client gave the note and money to Hank, who then marked which girl took which trick from which cab driver. At the end of the night, Angelou collected all the money and distributed it to the girls, Hank, and the cab drivers.
One evening Angelou came to the brothel to pick up her cut of the profits, but a drunk, naked sailor was still on the premises. Disgusted and angry at having been “subjugated to looking at the sickening aspect of a white man’s penis” by her employees, Angelou’s contempt the women who were working for her finally exploded. She quit on the spot. Out of spite, the couple, who has grown accustomed to her management, threatened to stick the police on her. Terrified and indignant, Angelou fled to Arkansas, where her grandmother lived.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to stay long because became at risk for lynching after talking back to a rude white sales clerk. She then returned to California and worked as a fry cook in Stockton. One night, at the end of Angelou’s shift, a gambler named L.D. Tollbrook entered the restaurant and asked her to cook for him and his friends. Despite her being off the clock, he charmed Angelou into complying to his wishes .
After a few weeks of unusual courtship, she fell madly in love with Tollbrook. He was married, but convinced Angelou he would one day leave his wife for her. He brought her along in his visits to whore houses, where she assumed he dealt drugs. He then disappeared for a few days. When re-emerged, he looked haggard and claimed that in an effort to win enough money for them to start a life together he had lost $5,000 and owed the mob $2,000. Angelou volunteered to work off the money for him as a prostitute; feigning reluctance, L.D. dropped her off with his friend Clara.
Normally, prostitutes who worked for Clara received their cut at the end of each shift, but since Angelou was working to pay L.D.’s debt, Clara kept it for him. It was then L.D.’s responsibility was to then pay Angelous “bills” for room rent, board, and liquor. Clients, mainly Mexican migrant workers, the had the choice between Angelou and Bea, a hardened streetwalker.
Despite her “youth and high school clothes”, Angelou had trouble competing with Bea, who had “a swing to her hips and a knowing smile that [she] couldn’t imitate”. After one week, L.D. picked up Maya- he told her she wasn’t making enough money and that he wanted her to call him Daddy. She had heard prostitutes referred to their pimps as Daddy and felt indignant at the suggestion that she was just one of L.D.’s girls, as opposed to being his future wife. Despite her growing discomfort, she complied to her lover’s request.
Angelou’s mother, who lived in San Francisco, got very sick, so Angelou dropped off her child to his babysitter’s house and immediately travelled to her mother’s bedside. After a week at home taking care of her ill mother, she returned to Stockton only to discover her babysitter’s house was boarded up and deserted. Terrified of being outed as a prostitute, she wasn’t able to call the police. When she ran to L.D. for help, his wife answered the door. Angered by Angelou’s presence at his doorstep in front of his wife, he dismissed and turned her way.
L.D.’s behavior finally drove Angelou to let go of the fantasy that he would become her husband. Her son had reportedly been taken to Oklahoma, so she went door to door in Bakersfield until she finally found him. The babysitter had kidnapped him, claiming that Angelou wasn’t spending enough time with the boy. Angelou took her son back and headed to San Francisco for a fresh start.
She went on to become a successful nightclub performer. She toured Europe in a production of Porgy and Bess, and released an album entitled Miss Calypso. She worked with many most black performers including Alvin Ailey and James Baldwin. She collaborated with comedian Godfrey Cambridge to produce Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for Martin
Luther King, whom she knew well.
She and her son moved to Cairo, where she worked as an associate editor at a newspaper, then to Ghana where she became an administrator at a university. Angelou was active in the African-American expatriate community, where she met and became close to Malcolm X. She returned to the U.S. in 1965 at his request to help build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was assassinated shortly afterward. Just three years later, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on Angelou’s 40th birthday.
She was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and by President Jimmy Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. A recording of that poem won a Grammy Award. Having garnered a plethora of prestigious literary and humanitarian awards as well as over 50 honorary degrees. President Barack Obama presented her with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom which is the highest civilian honor in the United States.
After struggling with health issues, she died on the morning of May 28, 2014.
While Angelou did not hide her experience in the sex industry, this facet of her life is often overlooked as if her sex work were antithetical to her status as one of the most influential figures of 20th century American culture, and therefore better to be left unmentioned. Her sex work past does not lessen or tarnish her accomplishments- they are part of the story of an extraordinary woman.
Maya Angelou's "Gather Together in My Name"
Nolan Feeney's "A Brief History of How Maya Angelou Influenced Hip Hop"
Peechington Marie "The Erasure of Maya Angelou's Sex Work History"