At 80, Maya Angelou says life is still an adventure
NEW YORK — It takes just seconds to leave behind this muted Harlem side street and enter the parlor of Maya Angelou’s brownstone, a step as bright and quick as a black and white film dissolving into Technicolor.
Plump sofas and armchairs in bursts of green, blue, red and yellow form a ring on spotless hardwood floors. Toward the rear, like a shy, well-dressed prodigy, a baby grand piano looks shined to stage perfection. By the piano, stained glass doors open to a red dining area centered by a mahogany table as big and round as the voice of Angelou herself.
Still close to her youthful height of 6 feet, the author-poet-dancer-singer-activist is ready to celebrate her 80th birthday, feeling, she says, like she’s 60, wearing a dark blouse and slacks, sipping apple juice, singing hymns, reciting Latin, whispering, laughing, crying, missing lost friends or planning to make new ones.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but I still see my life as an adventure,” says Angelou, who divides her time between New York and a house in Winston-Salem, N.C.
She has filled six volumes of memoirs with her wild, tragic, unstoppable story: growing up with segregation as a child and motherhood at 17; from strip clubs and brothels to nightclubs and Broadway; the assassinations of her friends Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; a classic memoir, Hallmark cards and the adoration of Oprah Winfrey.
Wealthy and famous beyond even her admittedly immodest dreams, she is no closer to settling down than she was decades ago. She is working on a new book, a collection of nonfiction pieces; travels the country giving speeches for which she earns thousands of dollars; and plans to spend part of the year studying at the Missouri-based Unity Church, which advocates healing through prayer.
“About three years ago, I was in Miami and my son [Guy] was having his 10th operation on his spine. I felt really done in by the work I was doing, people who had expected things of me,” says Angelou, who then recalled a Unity church service she attended in Miami.
“The preacher came out — a young black man, mostly a white church — and he came out and said, ‘I have only one question to ask, and that is, “Why have you decided to limit God?”’ And I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.’ So then he asked me to speak, and I got up and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And I said it about 50 times, until the audience began saying it with me, ‘Thank you, THANK YOU!’
“I got back in the car, when I was being driven back to the house I had taken, and I said, ‘On my 80th birthday, I will go into a kind of religious school and study.’ I don’t want to become a preacher, but I want to see if there’s another way, a more direct way into the soul’s search.”
She has written that when the road ahead is blocked, and the one behind cut off, then a new path must be created. Angelou’s life does not follow a straight, flat line, but takes detour upon detour, an ascending circle that covers rich and poor, city and country, art and commerce, shock and sentiment, Malcolm X and the good people of Hallmark Cards Inc.
“[When] I was about 12, I guess, I read the statement, ‘I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.’ The statement is so complex, so simple,” she says, quoting the Roman playwright Terence.
“Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.’ I have been internalizing that all my life. So, if Kobe Abe of Japan thinks a great thought, if Federico Garcia Lorca, or Carlos Santana writes a great line of music or a great poem, Balzac and Wole Soyinka … ALL of it is mine. And I take it all!”
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Mo., on April 4, 1928. She was raised in Stamps, Ark., and San Francisco, moving back and forth between her parents and her grandmother. She was smart and fresh to the point of danger, packed off by her family to California after sassing a white store clerk in Arkansas. Other times, she didn’t speak at all: at age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t speak for years. She learned by reading, and listening.
“I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: ‘Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,’” she says. “It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And ‘Deep River.’ Ooh! Even now it can catch me. And then I started reading, really reading, at about 7 and a half, because a woman in my town took me to the library, a black school library. … And I read every book, even if I didn’t understand it.”
At age 9, she was writing poetry. By 17, she was a single mother. In her early 20s, she danced at a strip joint, ran a brothel, was married, then divorced. By her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller.
“I had never met anybody in the world like her,” says Diller, still a close friend. “She was brilliant, talented, tall, and she had this great talent for dancing and singing. She had this very special, resonant voice. It had a certain quality. With Sinatra, he would sing one note and you knew who it was. It’s a recognizable sound, and she had that, too.”
Renamed Maya Angelou for the stage, she toured in the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” and Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” danced with Alvin Ailey, worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Council and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she befriended Malcolm X and remained close to him until his assassination, in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tenn., where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.
“Every year, on that day, Coretta and I would send each other flowers,” Angelou said of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006.
Little known outside the theatrical world in her 20s and 30s, she became a best-selling author in her early 40s. Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1970, has sold millions of copies and become a standard, if controversial, coming-of-age story, taught throughout the country.
The book might not have happened if James Baldwin hadn’t persuaded Angelou, still grieving over King’s death, to attend a party at Jules Feiffer’s house.
“There were a number of writers at the party, good talkers,” recalls Bob Loomis, her longtime editor at Random House and the man who helped push her to write the book.
“Judy Feiffer, Jules’ wife, called me and said she had met the most remarkable woman and that she had told wonderful stories and more than held her own with people known to be raconteurs and entertainers. And she said, ‘You ought to get her to write a book.’”
Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, says she found Angelou’s book “incredibly powerful and marvelous in its capacity to move people to share her experiences.” Walker’s daughter, memoirist Rebecca Walker, remembered reading Angelou in seventh grade and said “Caged Bird” helped her find her voice and make her “own way in the world, come what may.”
Angelou’s memoir also has been attacked, for seemingly opposite reasons. In a 1999 essay in Harper’s, author Francine Prose criticized “Caged Bird” as “manipulative” melodrama. Meanwhile, Angelou’s passages about her rape and teen pregnancy have made it a perennial on the American Library Association’s list of works that draw complaints from parents and educators.
“‘I thought that it was a mild book. There’s no profanity,” Angelou says. “It speaks about surviving, and it really doesn’t make ogres of many people. I was shocked to find there were people who really wanted it banned, and I still believe people who are against the book have never read the book.”
She has written five other memoirs and mastered several languages. She has published several volumes of poems, advice books and children’s stories. She has written music, plays and screenplays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in “Roots,” and still has a passion for dance, the art she considers closest to poetry.
“The only things I ever really loved were writing and dancing, and at 800 I will still be dancing. I’ll still think in terms of the long leg and extension, releves, and still love it,” she says. “The line of the dancer. If you watch Baryshnikov, and you see that line, that’s what the poet tries for. The poet tries for the line, the balance.”
She has evolved from outcast to bohemian to celebrity to institution. In 1993, the poem she read at former President Clinton’s first inauguration, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” was a million-selling sensation. She is a mentor to Winfrey, who will throw a party for her 80th birthday. Since 2002, she has been composing verse for Hallmark, calling it — however commercial — part of her mission as “the people’s poet.”
“My intent is to see a person read 30 pages of the book of mine, or five poems, before he knows he’s reading. I like him to just get in there,” she says.
“So in order to do that, I have to take these things, words. … Everybody in the world uses them, from morning until night. Words. You have to take some nouns and pronouns and adjectives and adverbs, ball them together and throw them against the wall and let them bounce.”
“I’ve got to do it.”
(top) Poet and novelist Maya Angelou laughs as she addresses the audience at the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America – Mobile Chapter’s 30th Anniversary Celebration Program on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006, in Mobile, Ala. The African American icon, who turns 80 tomorrow, says she feels as good as she did at age 60. (AP photo/Press-Register, John David Mercer)
(bottom)Angelou delivers a forceful oratory on stage at the FleetCenter in Boston during the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004. (AP photo/Stephan Savoia)
|(top) Angelou admires a blow-up of a Ghanaian postage stamp designed in her honor during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13, 1997. She was honored, along with 11 other black authors, on stamps from Ghana and Uganda to promote world literacy. The stamps were designed by Seattle-based artist Gary Aagaard. (AP photo/Patsy Lynch)
(bottom) When it was announced that Angelou would direct the film adaptation of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” The Associated Press described her as follows: “Maya Angelou, a 6-foot multi-talented ex-Arkansan, has been hired as Hollywood’s first black woman movie director … She’s been a professional singer, dancer, writer, composer, poet, lecturer, editor and San Francisco streetcar conductorette.” (AP photo)