Friday, June 17, 2016

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a luminous presence on the American cultural stage, writing, dancing, acting and speaking from her great belief in language and story. Born in 1928, Marguerite Johnson as a young girl was shunted between her grandmother’s house in Stamps, Arkansas, and her mother, who lived in St. Louis. She loved the store her grandmother kept, a focal point for the Black community, smelling of pickles, ripe fruit, and tobacco.

She was not so happy in St. Louis. She was sexually violated by a friend of her mother. When she told her brother, the man was tried and then killed. Little Marguerite stopped talking, fearing that her action in telling his name had killed him. When her mother couldn’t get her to speak, she and her beloved brother Bailey were sent back to Stamps. While remaining mute, she discovered Dickens, the Brontes, Shakespeare and Paul Laurence Dunbar. She slowly regained her voice, but did not lose the powers of observation she had gained during that time.

At 14 she was sent to California, where her mother was living in Oakland and then San Francisco. Marguerite grew to be over six feet tall, standing head and shoulders above her brother and her mother. At the beginning she felt her mother wasn’t the warm, enveloping person she thought a mother should be. At 15, while living with her father, she was abandoned in a fight and lived alone on the streets of San Diego for weeks, waiting until she recovered from being stabbed to go back to her mother. Taking control of her own life, she got a job as a trolley conductor, but then her thirst for knowledge drove her back to school. She was restless and mature however, and got pregnant. Waiting until she graduated to tell her family, she gave birth to a boy at 17.

In a few years she made a marriage to the Greek Tosh Angelos, who worked as the breadwinner. But Marguerite found him possessive and controlling and they had no support in either the Greek or the Black community. She wanted to be a good 1950s housewife. “I thought that would be heaven. I found it to be sheer hell!” She took dance classes, working with Alvin Ailey in San Francisco, and studying African dance with Pearl Primus. She worked in clubs, and began a calypso cabaret act at the Purple Onion, using her voice, expression and dance. At this time she needed a new name and she chose Maya Angelou. Opportunity began to come looking for her.

She went on a European tour with a company performing Porgy and Bess, leaving her son with her mother. When she returned in 1956, she made a home for herself and her son in Los Angeles. She was also writing songs, poetry and short stories, exploring the power of words. She moved to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild. She learned that “if I wanted to write, I had to develop a level of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance.”

In New York, Maya worked with the SCLC, her organizational skills quickly becoming apparent. She fell in love with a South African freedom fighter named Vus Make and made a home for them in New York. When asked to play the White Queen in Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, she did it as a favor, even writing songs for the production. But Vus Make was under surveillance and he announced they were moving to Cairo. Needing money in Cairo, Angelou was hired by a newspaper as a journalist. Studying hard to gain the trust of her male colleagues, Angelou turned herself into a journalist, becoming adept at writing and editing. When her son graduated from high school, he intended to go to a university in Ghana, in Accra. She visited him there and when Guy had a serious car accident she felt she couldn’t leave.

Though Angelou felt very much at home in Accra and found work, she missed America. She became friends with Malcolm X when he visited. Soon he wrote offering her a management position in his new Organization of Afro-American Unity. Maya’s son was asserting his independence, and she felt she “had gotten all Africa had to give me.” But before she was able to meet up with him, Malcolm was killed. Devastated, Angelou went to Hawaii when her brother found her a job. She re-settled in Los Angeles, arriving at the time of the Watts riots, where she worked, ironically, as a market researcher.

But New York was calling. She went back to her friends there, especially James Baldwin, writing plays and poems. When Martin Luther King asked her to help with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, she agreed. But again, before she could begin work, King was assassinated. Ignoring the pain, Angelou threw herself into work, producing ten programs on African American culture, Blacks, Blues, Black! Editors had been after her to write a memoir, but not until one of them told her it was “the most difficult thing anyone can do,” did she begin I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou’s later years were filled with writing, honors, speaking engagements, and wonderful friendships. The depth and breadth of her spirit and creative genius were widely visible. She was married to Paul du Feu for eight years, became a great hostess, bought houses in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and New York and continued to speak and write. At her death in May, 2014, she was widely memorialized in New York, San Francisco and Winston-Salem.

Maya Angelou has written several wonderful memoirs. But My Journey with Maya by Tavis Smiley [published 2015] showed me much about her relationships. In it, Angelou’s thoughts on language, on finding one’s voice and courage are highlighted. She never wasted words. Without courage, she told Smiley, love cannot be activated. “Without it there is no creative life, no spiritual life. Without courage, life is bereft of excitement and wonder.” She was also eloquent on the courage it took to keep one’s language free from vulgarity, though we would like to have the acceptance of our peers. “A decision to elevate one’s language is a decision to draw one closer to God … in the sense that we thank Him for our gift of speech by turning our speech into an ongoing prayer of praise.”