‘This month’s life story on Maya Angelou and her lifelong love of poetry reminded me how important and deep-reaching the power of the written word can be.’
THE CELEBRATED AUTHOR, POET, ACTIVIST AND LOVER OF LIFE LIVED BY HER WORDS; WE’D DO WELL TO LIVE BY THEM TOO
Tammy Bailey, acting managing editor
MAYA ANGELOU (1928–2014)
if you ever heard Maya Angelou’s voice, you’d never forget it. The deep, rich timbre of her deliberate pronunciations has mesmerised world leaders and bartenders alike. Nelson Mandela remembered it well. In a transcript of a conversation with his biographer, Richard Stengel, Mandela recounted watching her read ‘On The Pulse Of Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. ‘After reciting that poem,’ he said, ‘you remember, Clinton embraced her, kissed her.’ It was a moment for the history books: she was only the second poet, and certainly the first black woman, in US history to read at an inauguration. Mandela, who read her books while imprisoned, went on to recite her poem ‘Still I Rise’ a year later at his own inauguration.The last poem that Angelou ever published was ‘His Day Is Done’, a tribute to Mandela that was circulated in 15 languages.
A friend of civil rights activists and presidents, it was no surprise that two of America’s most powerful women, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, spoke at Angelou’s private memorial service in North Carolina on 7 June. Obama called Angelou her ‘shero’ (a term Angelou herself often used); Winfrey said she was her ‘spiritual queen mother’ and ‘the greatest woman I have ever known’. Thousands came to celebrate the life of a woman who once described herself as ‘a too big Negro girl with nappy black hair, too big feet and a gap between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil’ and set out to inspire black women around the world with her writing, then everyone else too.
Angelou wrote a prolific amount: poems, essays, seven autobiographies and several cookbooks; she also wrote scripts and songs (country music was her favourite), and had a range of cards and gifts with Hallmark, something her long-term editor had balked at. Angelou had insisted. ‘If I’m America’s poet, or one of them, then I want to be in people’s hands,’ she told USA Today. ‘All people’s hands, people who would never buy a book.’ She said she did most of her writing in hotel rooms, accompanied by a bottle of sherry, a pack of playing cards and a Bible.
Among an endless stream of awards, she won three Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album, and was honoured by 71 universities around the world. Despite graduating at high school level, her preferred title was Dr Angelou. While she said that her greatest achievement in life was her son (born to her at 17, his father was unnamed), the award she valued most was from the University of Arkansas, because her greatgrandmother had worked the nearby land as a slave many decades before. In 2010, aged 83, she received the highest award an American civilian can receive: the Presidential
‘I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh’
Medal of Freedom, from President Obama. In the outpouring of tributes she’s been called a ‘ hopemonger’, ‘truthteller’, ‘Renaissance woman’, ‘titan’ and ‘America’s great warrior’, to name a few. ‘[Her] words [were] so powerful,’ said Michelle Obama at the memorial, ‘that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago to the White House.’
But for five years, Angelou had no words at all. From the age of seven, she was ‘consciously mute’ after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend while staying with them in St Louis (she’d been living with her grandmother since she was three). Being made to speak at his trial and then hearing the news of his murder days later, suspected to be at the hands of her uncles, the trauma increased. ‘In my child’s mind I thought my voice had killed him,’ she said. And so she stopped using it.
Both Angelou, who was born Marguerite Johnson, and her beloved brother Bailey (he was responsible for her nickname Maya), were sent back to live with Grandmother Henderson. Known to them as Momma, she was the owner of the general food store in the segregated town of Stamp, Arkansas, and a pillar of the community. Some of her darker childhood memories included hiding her uncle from the Ku Klux Klan in the potato bin in the store and being refused medical assistance by the local white dentist. But Momma kept her on a steady path: many years later, in an Oprah interview, Angelou said,‘I can almost hear her voice saying, “Now sister.You know what’s right. Just do right.”’
Amidst her enduring silence, something extraordinary happened.Not only did Angelou form a strong bond with her lifelong love, poetry, but she also developed an incredible memory. ‘I seem to be able to direct the brain… I say remember this, remember that. And it’s caught!’ Angelou, who went on to be fluent in many languages, told the Smithsonian. Her poetry tastes included Shakespearean sonnets and poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Laurence Dunbar. She was tempted back to speech by a woman in her community, who said true poetry lovers spoke it. ‘[She said] you must feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips,’ said Angelou. ‘One day I went under the [store] where I lived, and I tried poetry. And I had a voice.’
‘Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I’m sure,’ Angelou’s mother told her. ‘You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met’
almost 30 years later, she would use a line of Dunbar’s poetry for the title of her best-selling autobiography about her childhood years, which ended with the birth of her only child, Guy, when she was 17. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was an important book for its time, published in 1969, just after the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. Here was an African-American woman laying out the memories of her Southern childhood for the world to see.The presentation of rape, teenage pregnancy, violence and racial abuse caused some libraries and schools to ban it (there have been 39 challenges or bans since 1983), while others, such as the US poet James
‘If I’m asked, “Can you do this?” I think, if I don’t do it, it’ll be 10 years before another black woman is asked to do it. And I say, yes, yes, when do you want it?’
Bertolino argued, ‘ We should all read it, especially our children.’
Since her teenage years, Angelou had had a feeling that somewhere ahead of her lay greatness. A defining moment was a conversation with her mother, who she called a ‘piss-poor mother of small children, a great mother of young adults’ – the feisty, gun-loving Vivian Baxter, a sometime nurse (who delivered Angelou’s son). At 22, ‘when life had kicked me down and made me call it Charlie’, Vivian told her, ‘Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I’m sure. You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.’ Angelou said, ‘She freed me.To say I may have something in me that will be of value. That’s love.’
Caged Bird brought her fame but Angelou experienced a variety of professions beyond writer. ‘If I’m asked, “Can you do this?” I think, if I don’t do it, it’ll be 10 years before another black woman is asked to do it. And I say, yes, yes, when do you want it?’ she told the Smithsonian. She’d been a street-car conductor (the first African-American in San Francisco in that job), been a cook in a burger joint and restaurant, sung in a nightclub, released a calypso album and even worked as a paint stripper for a mechanic. In the years to come, she would also become a Tony-nominated stage actress, the first black woman to be admitted to Hollywood’s Directors Guild and star in the groundbreaking TV series about slavery, Roots.
The fight for equality and civil rights was a key force in her life. Her second ‘husband’ (Angelou never confirmed whether they were officially married) was South African activist Vusumzi Make. (Her first marriage, at 22, was to Tosh Angelos. The marriage lasted three years but a variation of his surname stayed with her for life.) ‘Intelligence always had a pornographic influence on me,’ she wrote of her first encounter with Make, at an anti-apartheid meeting. ‘I intend to change your life. I am going to take you to Africa,’ Make told her. And so he did: in 1961, Angelou and Guy moved with him to Cairo, where she met Mandela for the first time. After the relationship faltered she spent three years in Ghana as editor of African Review. There was also another, less respected profession from her youth that Angelou was brave enough to share. Raising her son alone as a young adult, she had worked as a madam and, briefly, as a prostitute, which she documented in her second book, Gather Together In My Name. ‘I wrote that book to tell young people … you may encounter defeats but you must not be defeated,’ she said. Her third husband, Paul de Feu, a Welsh carpenter and artist, supported her decision to write about that part of her life.The two loved each other ‘so much’ but the marriage ended after eight years in 1981.‘I’m not the easiest person to live with,’ she said.
She loved to dance, entertain, joke, drink and smoke, saying, ‘I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.’ Angelou said that once she had accepted, at age 20, that she would die one day, she ‘started enjoying life – and I enjoy it very much’. For the last 30 years of her life she was a lecturer at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. ‘With Dr Angelou, every class was “Being Human 101”,’ remembered one of her former students at her memorial. In an interview days before her death, she said that her next lecture would be on ‘Courage and love and laughter and the moon and cooking’.
She died on 28 May. ‘My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive,’ she once said. ‘And to do so with some passion, compassion; humour and style.’ Mission accomplished, Dr Angelou.
Clockwise from above Dancing with US ‘people’s poet’ LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) in New York in 1991; with singeractress Barbra Streisand, 1993; at a ceremony honouring Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in Washington, 2008; receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2010; with newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton in 1993, applauded by Vice-President Al Gore (right).