Maya Angelou, poet, epigrammist and philosopher, has completed the final part of her autobiography - it covers the darkest hours of the civil rights movement. For someone in the inspiration and uplift business, it was a hard task. But she managed, as she always does
by Gary Younge The Guardian, Saturday 25 May 2002
Maya Angelou does not like to fly. So she made it to the West Coast from her home in North Carolina by bus. It is 2,152 miles as the crow flies. But she more than trebled the distance, coming via Toronto and the Rockies, on her five-week book and lecture tour. It's not a Greyhound, she quickly explains, but a serious tour bus, complete with a double bed, spare rooms, shower, cooking facilities and satellite television.
The first one she had, which she rented from Prince, had a washer-dryer, too. She herself designed the interior for the next one, which will be delivered before the end of the year. It will be decked out in kente cloth - the hand-woven fabric of Ghana's Ashanti region that has become an aesthetic signifier of black America's African heritage. In the thousands of miles that they have travelled around the country in this bus, she has bumped into Lauryn Hill and passed BB King.
Angelou gave up flying, unless it is really vital, about three years ago. Not because she was afraid, but because she was fed up with the hassle of celebrity. One of the last times she flew, her feet had not made it to the kerbside at the airport before an excitable woman started shouting her name. "It's Maya Angelou, Maya Angelou," she screamed incessantly.
Angelou looked around her and asked the woman. "Are you with someone?"
"No," the stranger replied and continued shouting.
"So who are you calling to?" asked Angelou.
"People over there who maybe haven't seen you yet," says the woman.
"Well, that was a non sequitur," recalls Angelou. "So I just kept walking."
Heading down an escalator a few minutes later, she was met by a woman who thrust a baby into Angelou's arms, while the stranger rummaged in her bag for a pen and something for Angelou to sign.
On the plane, a flight attendant crouched beside the author and confessed her intimate woes. Angelou listened politely until the plane took off. With seat belt still buckled, sitting 45 degrees to the earth, climbing at great speed, the pilot came out to pay his respects. Angelou almost choked. "Who's minding the store?" she spluttered.
Angelou often gets treated as public property. People think they know her. Not surprising, given that she has told them so much about herself. For, probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou's life literally is her work.
She has just released the sixth and final tranche of her autobiography - A Song Flung Up To Heaven. It is the culmination of more than 30 years' work that started with her bestselling debut, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a title taken from the first line of Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, Sympathy.
The first book tells how her father sent her and her elder brother, Bailey, to live with her paternal grandmother in the tiny Southern town of Stamps, Arkansas, after her parents divorced. Aged three and four, the two children arrived at the station wearing wrist tags reading: "To Whom It May Concern." At eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. Soon after she had identified him as the rapist, he was found murdered - the police said he appeared to have been kicked to death. For the next five years, the young Angelou went mute, thinking that her voice itself had killed him and that if she spoke again she might kill someone else. Later, she would move to California and, while still a teenager, give birth to her only son, Guy.
The huge array of experiences that she managed to pack into her first 16 years presages a life of ceaseless, albeit occasionally calamitous, adventure. In later years and subsequent autobiographical works, she became a waitress, madam, prostitute, singer, actress and activist, a dancer in Paris, an editor in Egypt and a lecturer in Ghana. She will not say how many times she has been married for fear of sounding frivolous, but it is at least three.
A Song Flung Up To Heaven takes its title from the last line in the same Dunbar poem. It starts with her returning to America to work for Malcolm X, who had just changed his name to Malcolm Malik-Shabazz and his politics from black nationalism to a socialist version of Pan-Africanism. It ends with her beginning to write her first memoir.
Gliding down the freeway in a stretch limousine, Angelou asks for a whisky.
"Do you want ice and stuff?" asks her assistant, Ms Stuckey.
"I want some ice, but mostly I want stuff," says Angelou with a smile, and invites me to join her.
We are heading to a packed house of 2,800 in Pasadena. The night before she performed to 3,000 in Redundo Beach. It is a peculiar kind of stardom for a poet, writer and lecturer. It is difficult to think of a contemporary of hers who commands the same popular appeal. When I call 1-800 FLOWERS the next day to send her a bouquet to say thank you, the young woman taking my order says she is in awe that I have even met her. "She's a great philosopher," she says. "That's what I like about her because I like philosophy. I like thinking, really."
Angelou, like her good friend Oprah, is in the inspiration business. While the medium may vary from proverb, poetry, metaphor to mantra, the message is the same. You only have one life, so live it to the full. Be angry but never bitter. Take risks, love, laugh, acknowledge defeat but do not succumb to it. And while humility is part of the vocabulary, guile is most certainly not.
"Does my sassiness upset you?" she asks in one of her most famous poems, Still I Rise.
"Why are you beset with gloom?
Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room."
Alongside and intertwined in her call for emotional uplift is a simple, humanist, anti-racist message: "We are more alike than we are unalike."
"I could fall in love with a sumo wrestler if he told stories and made me laugh," she says. "Obviously, it would be easier if someone was African-American, and lived next door and went to the same church. Because then I wouldn't have to translate. But if I make the effort to learn the language and respect the mores then I should be able to get along anywhere and with any kind of people. I think I belong wherever human beings are."
As we pull up and make our way through the artist's entrance, a member of the audience shouts that she's driven 200 miles to see her. We leave Angelou in the green room, alone with her thoughts and the nibbles.
Inside, the audience is gathering. As Angelou predicted, they are mostly white. "Maybe 5% black professional, 5% street." With the exception of the very few Hispanic faces, it roughly reflects the racial composition of the city itself. It is about three-quarters female. And while more than half appear to be in their 60s or over, many of those have come with either their granddaughters or much younger friends. Whatever city she is in, Angelou insists on doing a signing in an African-American-owned bookshop as well. Those, too, are usually packed. In a nation where segregation still defines everything from where you worship to what television show you watch, this level of crossover appeal is rare.
It is a breadth, across age groups, too, that brought her to the attention of Hallmark cards, who approached her to add both her words and her name to a new range. Angelou was interested at first, but sceptical. One of her friends tried to talk her out of it. But what some saw as crass commercialisation, Angelou viewed as an opportunity.
"My friend said, 'Oh no, please. You're the people's poet. Don't trivialise yourself by writing greetings cards.' I thought, 'You're right,' and I hung up the phone. Then I thought about it. I thought, 'Suppose I really am the people's poet? Then the people ought to be able to have my work in their hands. People who will never buy a book will buy a card.' So I thought, 'Oh yes.' I called my friend back and said, 'Thank you so much. Now I'm going to do it.' "
So now her name appears on everything from bookends to pillows and mugs to wall-hangings. Expansive in range and expensive in price, her Life Mosaic Collection offers a "Glorious Banquet Bowl", with the message: "Life is a glorious banquet, a limitless and delicious buffet." Her work and, given the nature of her work, also her life have effectively been branded. The pain of her early years, and the wisdom she has derived from it, has been commodified. It seems a long way from Malcolm X.
Angelou is unapologetic. "I agree with Balzac and 19th-century writers, black and white, who say, 'I write for money'," she laughs. "Yes, I think everybody should be paid handsomely, I insist on it and I pay people who work for me, or with me, handsomely."
The joint venture with Hallmark, she says, is a literary challenge. "It's exciting because it means I have to take two or three pages of work and reduce it to two lines. It's haiku, it's an epigram. So there's this woman I know who's in an abusive relationship - not physically, I don't think, but psychologically - and she accepts it. At work she's a boss to the people under her and is much disliked, so I wrote all of that out and then reduced it to these two lines: 'A wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy, a wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim.' Now it took me a good two days to get that and it's delicious. It's just great."
The politics of commercialisation aside, both Angelou's work and world outlook do lend themselves to the epigram. She was raised on dictums, riddles and rhymes with reason. Once, while directing a film in Sweden, she was having trouble with the actors and the crew. She called for her mother who arrived in Sweden with the words, "Baby, mother came to Stockholm to tell you one thing - cow needs a tail for more than one season." Growing up, her more devout and somewhat prudish grandmother told her: "Wash up as far as possible, and then wash possible."
When she began this current tour in North Carolina, the county commissioner was part of the official welcoming committee. When Angelou noticed he had tried to get her to sign his books ahead of others in the queue, she told the crowd: "In West Africa, in times of famine, in times of drought, the chief tightens his belt first. I ask those of you who are leaders to wait." The commissioner was sent scurrying to find someone in the line to take his books for him.
It is a form, both literary and oratory, that is prevalent in African-American life, from politics to publishing, thanks to the dominance of the church. It's a style developed at the pulpit, when the church was the only organisation independent of white supremacy, and combines charismatic delivery with a mixture of truism and teaching, parable and polemic.
This is her language. And this, in Pasadena, is her audience. Witnessing Angelou on stage is like watching stand-up comedy, a university lecture and a poetry recital all in one. With stories, quips and poems - both her own and those of African-American poets both dead and living - she has them laughing, gasping and listening for over an hour.
At 74, she has no intention of retiring. "I wouldn't know how," she says. With her skin of cinnamon, cane of silver and earrings of pearl, she has reached this point with grace, good humour and relatively good health. Her breasts, she told Oprah recently, "are in an incredible race to see which one will touch [her] waist first". Arthritis, she informs an audience in Pasadena, plays tricks on her knee. She may pause to catch her breath mid-sentence. And her 6ft frame may move hesitantly and with a stoop. But beyond the inconveniences of time and gravity, she is in fine form.
Ask how she deals with people's responses to old age and she answers by singing the final verse of her poem, On Aging:
"I'm the same person I was back then
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain't I lucky I can still breathe in."
Her voice is slow and rich - so deliberate she seems to be tasting words before she lets them leave her mouth. Her speech is peppered with Southern courtesies. You may introduce yourself with your first name, but she will address you with your second. Everybody, in her presence, becomes Mr, Mrs or Miss - legacy from a time when African-Americans were denied those basic signifiers of civility by whites, and so demanded it within their own community.
"I insist upon that," says Angelou. "I did it and do it still. I do it still to Dr Dorothy Hyde, who is 90. I'm still the young kid and very respectful."
Later this year she'll direct the movie version of Bebe Moore Campbell's novel Singing In The Comeback Choir. She teaches a course at Wake Forest University in North Carolina on The Philosophy of Liberation, is writing a cookbook, and will continue to pen poems and essays.
For all her optimism, there have been times, she admits, when she has believed that the political equality and personal happiness she sought during the 1960s might never come. Her latest book spans the four crucial and painful years - 1965 to 1969 - both in her life story and America's racial history, when that pessimism had most firmly taken root. A period when two of Black America's greatest leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, were both murdered. An era when the focus of black politics in America shifted from civil rights to economic rights, rural to urban, south to north, and from peaceful protest to violent retribution. It was also a time when she had to cope with the guilt of leaving her then troublesome teenage son, Guy, in Ghana, and the end of a long-term relationship with an African man whom she has never named.
Normally she submits herself to an eccentric, if apparently effective, work regime: to avoid distraction, she rents a motel room, and asks for it to be stripped bare of any decoration; then she fills it with a thesaurus, a dictionary and a bottle of sherry, and starts writing long-hand. But, for this book, a disciplined routine was not enough: "I went down to Florida for a different mood, a different atmosphere," she says. "It was a very difficult book to write. In all my work, I try to say - you may be given a load of sour lemons, why not try to make a dozen lemon meringue pies? But I didn't see how I could do that with this book, dealing with Malcolm's murder, Martin's murder, the uprising in Watts, the end of a love affair- marriage-cum-something. It took me six years to write this book, and it's the slimmest of all the volumes."
Within a week of her arrival from Africa, Malcolm X had been assassinated. "After Malcolm was killed, the hope and I were both dashed to the ground," she says. A few years later, Martin Luther King Jr asks her to help organise the poor people's march on Washington. Soon afterwards, he, too, was assassinated.
The men had more in common, both politically and personally, than most people recognise, she says. "They were men of passion, exquisite intelligence, great humour, shattering courage. I don't mean the courage to stand up against the possibility of being assassinated. I mean the courage to stand in front of a hostile world and say, 'I was wrong'.
"Malcolm X, after having gone to Mecca, said, 'I've met some blue-eyed men who I can call brother, so I was wrong. All whites are not blue-eyed devils.' Now that was courage. It took courage to say that."
It is her personal connection to these political events that makes them so evocative. Her own narrative is closely interwoven into black America's political and cultural fabric. She was there in Roots, as Kunta Kinte's grandmother, a role for which she was nominated for an Emmy. Her character is there in the film Ali, being introduced to the boxer by Malcolm X while in Ghana. She was there in 1997, at the bedside of X's widow, Betty Shabazz, when she died of multiple burns caused by a fire started deliberately by her grandson.
The year before, she had been instrumental in getting together Coretta Scott King, Shabazz and Myrlie Evers-Williams, three women who had been widowed by the civil rights movement. "They went to the Doral in Miami. And they asked me to come," she recalls. "And I said, 'I'm not coming, I'm nobody's widow.' I made them laugh. I said, not one of you knows how to tell a good story, and only one or two of you will have a half a glass of white wine."
But the following year, when the three women repeated the meeting, she accepted the invitation. "On Thursday, Betty had called me at my apartment, and told me she had wanted me to cook something. And I cooked it and she came and it was the two of us and it was great." On the Sunday, the day Angelou was supposed to meet her again in Florida, she got a call from Coretta Scott King to say that Shabazz had been seriously injured in a domestic fire. "She said, 'Sister, our sister'." And then her gift for story-telling dissolves in pain.
The delinquency of Shabazz's grandson and the tragedy of her death seemed, in a sense, emblematic of not so much how little had changed in Black America, but of how deeply some things had regressed. Just as when civil rights icon Rosa Parks was attacked in her home in Detroit by a black burglar, here, yet again, we saw the embodiment of political purpose bludgeoned by the arbitrary fallout of social disintegration.
Ask her what she thinks King's or Malcolm X's agenda would be now, and she releases a long, helpless breath. "I can't," she says. "I can't. So many things have happened since they were both assassinated. The world has changed so dramatically."
But significant progress, insists Angelou, has been made, and must be lauded in order for more progress to be forthcoming. "I think that, as one looks at Watts, one must look at the Academy awards. As one looks at the drug epidemic, one has also got to look at General Colin Powell and Ms Condoleeza Rice and the mayor of Washington and the mayor of Atlanta. I mean, there are changes. It's not nearly what has to happen... One has got to say there are changes, and the reason for that is this. If we suggest that there are no changes, then young people must say, 'Well, damn, with the lives and deaths of Martin King, Malcolm X, the Kennedys, Medgar Evers, you mean all of that and they weren't able to effect any change - then there's no point in me trying. So we've got to say, yes, there have been changes, minimal changes, but there have been some. And you must try." Yet the successes that she points to are all individual, while the setbacks are collective. What connection is there between those who have got on and those who have been left behind, if the successful do not lift others as they rise? "Some didn't, some don't, some won't, some forget, some have really short memories. They suggest that, 'I've got mine - too bad about you. Give me the million-dollar contract for the baseball team or the basketball team. Give them my nothing and I'll take their everything.' There is that, yes. But that is not general. Usually, black people do try to serve the race and try to serve the nation, really."
With poems entitled Phenomenal Woman, Poor Girl and A Good Woman Feeling Bad, she has always been outspoken on gender issues. But race provided the prism for her analysis of the women's movement in America. "The white American man makes the white American woman just a little kind of decoration," she once said. "He can send his rockets to the moon, and the little woman can sit at home. Well, the black American woman has never been able to feel that way. No black American man at any time in our history has been able to feel that he didn't need that black woman right against him, shoulder to shoulder - in the cotton field, in the auction block, in the ghetto, wherever. That black woman is integral, if not a most important part of the family unit."
This mixture of race pride, rugged individualism and realpolitik has made for unpredictable political standpoints over the past 20 years. Angelou backed the nomination of arch conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, following allegations of sexual harassment. At the time, she argued in the New York Times: "Because Clarence Thomas has been nearly suffocated by the acrid odour of racial discrimination, is intelligent, well-trained, black and young enough to be won over again, I support him."
Several negative decisions on affirmative action and a court-assisted election victory for George W Bush later, does she still believe that?
Angelou laughs. "It's hard for me to say that. I thought so when I wrote the piece. And I may have been right even then. I said let's co-opt him. Don't let's wait for somebody else to co-opt him. Let African-Americans co-opt him, let's surround him with so much camaraderie and friendship, and don't let him forget, let us do it rather than fall victim to Machiavelli's dictate, separate and rule, divide and conquer. I still think if we had done that at that time we might have had him. But people laughed at me, rather than consider what had been suggested."
She spoke at the Million Man March, supporting Minister Louis Farrakhan, who nine years earlier she had branded as "dangerous".
"I think he has become more and more wise. Sixteen years ago he may have still have been talking about a state apart, I haven't heard him say that in many years. As he speaks of education and self-respect and self-love and race pride and hard work and loyalty, he speaks of the needs of the people. And he has the following; and if they listen to him and are taught by him, follow those teachings, then it will be a better country and there will be a better future."
She addressed the nation, and the world, at President Clinton's inauguration in 1993 with a poem full of hope. Does she feel the hope was satisfied?
"No. But fortunately there is that about hope: it is never satisfied. It is met, sometimes, but never satisfied. If it was satisfied, you'd be hopeless."
So was it met? "Some of it, yes."
There are many Americans who supported Clinton, Thomas or Farrakhan. But there are few who supported all three. While she is undeniably liberal, if not radical, on most issues, it is her support for black people who do not necessarily espouse issues commonly regarded as in the interests of black people that often places her outside America's traditional liberal/ conservative spectrum. This eclectic approach to race, she says, she learnt from Malcolm X.
"Malcolm once said to me, 'Well, you would be upset if the NAACP [referring to the oldest, most conservative civil rights organisation] had a party at the Waldorf Astoria. You wouldn't go, would you?' I said, 'No, I wouldn't go.' He said, 'Think of racism as a mountain, now cut it open. Now, on all the strata we need people. We need people to support the NAACP. Some of the scholarships they give may be given to the young Malcolm X, the young MLK, the young Septima Clark, so we need people on all the levels.' "
What some may view as inconsistency she regards as intellectual rigour. "I insist to be myself, wherever I am. I have enough of the language to try to explain myself, to convey what I'm really thinking. I'm not always successful, but I try. I've lived long enough to see some things. I have enough courage to try and say what I see. If I'm taken out of context, then I say I've been taken out of context."
Only in her response to September 11 has this approach eluded her. "I don't want to be dodgy, but I have to be careful, because if only some of what I say is published then I might have to go on television and lay it out." She was in her apartment in New York on the day and saw it unfold. "When the second one hit I thought terrorism. My second thought was for the people in the buildings on those floors. My God. And my next thought was retribution."
She agreed to do only one or two interviews with people she trusted, for fear of being given insufficient time to explain her views. "We should regard it as a hate crime," she says, arguing that it should be both comprehended and condemned within the context of all hate crimes, wherever they are committed and whomever they are committed against. "It has made Americans more American - that is to say, protectors and defenders of the country. It has, I think, made a number of Americans more inquisitive about our foreign policy, too. More concerned about what are we doing in other parts of the world, and how did we come so late and lonely to this place.
"Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America, but black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years."
As our car leaves the Pasadena civic centre, Angelou rolls down the window and waves, thanking those in the audience who have stopped to cheer her. Back on the freeway, the whisky is out again. "I don't talk down to whites. I don't talk up to whites. I just talk to them," she says.
She asks Mr Schaeffer, the chauffeur, to drop me at my hotel. It is one of those aggressively trendy places, where the name on the front is upside down and there is a live model asleep in a cabinet behind reception. When I told her about it earlier, she screwed up her nose in mock disapproval. As the car pulls away, she winds down the window and shouts, "That's swanky!" and laughs. And then they're off. A white driver and his elderly black female patron. As though someone pulled out the negatives from Driving Miss Daisy.