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Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou
The Good Doctor: Maya Angelou has been described as not only the voice of her generation but also the conscience of her time. Local lovers of the word can hear her speak at the Civic on Friday.

Photo by Steve Dunwell



Poet and essayist Maya Angelou
transcends race and gender

By Kelly Luker

POET, AUTHOR, DIRECTOR, playwright, professor, producer, performer, singer. Maya Angelou's accomplishments are a burst of glorious blooms and colors, her life an example of how impossible beauty can spring from the most wretched circumstances.

Born a year before the Great Depression in St. Louis, Mo., Marguerita Johnson had survived poverty, divorce, family separation and rape by the time she was 8 years old.

Had this been a latter--and allegedly more progressive--era, and Marguerita born of a different race and social class, any one of those experiences could have purchased the young girl a one-way ticket to therapy for a lifetime of endless hashing and rehashing of woes.

Fortunately--for us at least--Marguerita instead became Maya Angelou, a marvelously talented woman who shared those experiences with us in her bestselling autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first in her series of five autobiographies was equal parts rage, joy and hope riding on a river of liquid prose.

Published in 1971, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings not only chronicled Angelou's life through age 16, when she gave birth to her son, Guy, but it also offered a clear, and frightening, glimpse into the "separate but equal" black experience of the pre-WWII era.

She wrote of nights when she and her family hid in the cellar cowering in fear, waiting for the Ku Klux Klan to ride through town. She describes living in the tiny town of Stamps, Ark., in an existence so segregated that many of her neighbors had never seen a white person.

But if these experiences fueled the rage, it is tragedy that gave birth to her love of words. After she identified her mother's boyfriend as the man who raped her, he was found beaten to death in a vacant lot--presumably at the hands of her violently protective uncles.

Consumed with guilt that her words had killed a man, the young Angelou did not speak for the next five years. Instead, she became a mute sponge to the sights, sounds and voices that surrounded her.

It is this self-imposed silence that perhaps gave Angelou the gift for nuance and intonation that has put her famous poetry to flight.

It was as much that honeyed voice of delivery as the prose of her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," written for Clinton's 1993 presidential inauguration, that moved so many to tears as Angelou beseeched Americans to "Lift up your eyes upon / This day breaking for you. / Give birth again / to the dream."

Women and Courage

TAKEN UNDER WING by a neighbor who recognized Angelou's quick mind, the young girl delved deep into the world of great authors, both black and white. As she grew older, Angelou's rebellious spirit coupled with her prodigious talents made for an interesting résumé. By her early 20s, Angelou had been an unwed mother, madam, waitress and cabaret dancer and had flirted briefly with drugs and abusive men.

Later years would find her excelling at almost every area of the arts. She has published four collections of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize­nominated Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die. Angelou has been nominated for the Tony award twice for her acting--one of those performances was in the TV miniseries Roots. She was the first black woman director and producer for 20th Century Fox. There's more--the screenwriting, singing, newspaper editing--but you get the picture. In between these endeavors, Angelou also found time to be a guiding force in the tumultuous civil rights era as northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

So, how did this young girl--abused, "ugly, flat-footed and too dang tall," as she writes that others called her--transcend the siren call to failure and instead find success? By most accounts, that success can be measured in more than achievements. Those who know her or have interviewed her invariably refer to Angelou's warmth and presence. The answer may be in what she once told a writer for USA Today: "What I'd really like said about me is that I dared to love."

And that she dared. Angelou's life is about finding courage from within when there is nowhere else to look. It is fitting, then, that she will be speaking this Friday (Feb. 21) to benefit Women's Crisis Support, a nonprofit Santa Cruz organization that assists women in abusive relationships.

In our conversation, Angelou touched on many themes--politics, the church and art--but it was the question of women and courage that the gifted poet kept returning to. Asked about her advice for women who are in the misery of an unhealthy relationship, Angelou is quick to point out that her thoughts are only general--"It's dangerous to make one shoe fit all," she notes.

But, then she speaks--that famous honey-sweet, molasses-slow voice, enunciating and drawing out each word. She ponders the situation of women who, like her, have disappeared into the black hole of love and seen it turn ugly and violent. "I would encourage [a woman] to take time out to listen to herself," she finally says.

In the style of all great storytellers, Angelou then illustrates her point with, of course, a story. "I have a painting that I am looking at now that I've had about 20 years," she tells me. She describes seven black women sitting in fold-up chairs, with one chair empty. The women, explains Angelou, remind her of the ladies at her grandmother's prayer meeting groups. The picture has followed her from house to office to the 20th Century Fox studios to home again. It is this portrait that Angelou turns to when she wrestles with a moral question. "And before I can get the question out," says Angelou, "I can hear my grandmother say, 'Now, sister, you know what's right to do.'"

Faith and Freedom

FOR ANGELOU, the risks, the courage and the daring that her endeavors are built on were born from her unshakable faith in God. She speaks in an earlier interview of renting a room at a nearby motel. When she prepares to write, she will lock herself in that room with everything removed from it except pen, paper and the Bible. Six or seven hours later she will emerge after prayer, laughter and tears--and hopefully, written words.

Asked why Christian faith seems to come shining through the literature of black authors more than white, Angelou responds, "The black child usually--I don't mean in these currently dysfunctional families--grows up knowing and being told that there is something greater than you. That entity, that spirit, has created all things, you included. You can't pacify it, but you can live a certain way with some grace, some generosity, some kindness. And you will benefit from it."

As government cuts threaten to take food and shelter from the poor and disenfranchised, Angelou sees the possibility of the church rebuilding itself in the lives of both the individual and community and following its original mission of ministering to the needy. "I see the church as family," she notes.

She belongs to three different churches--one in San Francisco, one in Washington D.C., and one in her hometown. "Glide Memorial [in San Francisco] is a family affair, with whites and blacks and Asians and Native Americans and gays and straights and transvestites and little old ladies with blue hair." She explains. "I joined those churches because they literally reach out into the community."

For this well-known speaker and lecturer, the inaugural festivities of 1993 only made her more popular. But she is cutting back on both her speaking and writing. For that reason, this all-too-brief interview must now draw to a close. Even so, Angelou is still thinking about women and violence, women and suffering, women and adversity. And she adds one more thought--shocking to those who have been hurting.

"I would encourage women to develop humor," she says. "I know it seems strange if you're being beaten up and your children are being abused. What do you have to laugh at?" But Angelou points to that recurring refrain in the blues or poetry: I laugh to keep from crying. "Laughter is the most healing of the emotions," she believes. "And sometimes, laughter is the sweetest revenge.

"Many people take the low road for themselves because they truly don't believe they deserve the high road. But when the woman stops she will hear, 'Wait a minute, I'm worth more than that.' " Or she may hear words like those that resonate from And Still I Rise, one of Angelou's most celebrated verses: "I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman. / That's me."


Maya Angelou appears with Linda Tillery's Cultural Heritage Choir on Friday (8pm) at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., SC (429-3444).

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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