‘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.’


Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS VANESSA McCULLOCH

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).

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