Maya Angelou goes from tragedy to triumph

Published: Thursday | May 29, 2014 Comments 0
In this February 7, 2006 file photo, Maya Angelou speaks during the funeral services for Coretta Scott King at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. At rear are President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. - File
In this February 7, 2006 file photo, Maya Angelou speaks during the funeral services for Coretta Scott King at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. At rear are President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. - File

Her very name as an adult was a reinvention. Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, 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 seven, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and didn't talk 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 told the AP.

"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 seven 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."

renaming herself

At age nine, 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, and then divorced. But by her mid-20s, she was performing at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, where she shared billing with another future star, Phyllis Diller. She also spent a few days with Billie Holiday, who was kind enough to sing a lullaby to Angelou's son, Guy, surly enough to heckle her off the stage and astute enough to tell her: "You're going to be famous. But it won't be for singing."

After renaming herself Maya Angelou for the stage ('Maya' was a childhood nickname, 'Angelou' a variation of her husband's name), she toured in Porgy and Bess and Jean Genet's The Blacks and danced with Alvin Ailey. She worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Nelson Mandela, a longtime friend; and Malcolm X, to whom she remained close until his assassination in 1965. Three years later, she was helping King organise the Poor People's March in Memphis, Tennessee, 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.

Angelou was little known outside the theatrical community until I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which 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.

Feiffer was so taken by Angelou that he mentioned her to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book by daring her into it, saying that it was "nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature".

"Well, maybe I will try it," Angelou responded. "I don't know how it will turn out. But I can try."

Angelou's musical style was clear in a passage about boxing great Joe Louis's defeat in 1936 against German fighter Max Schmeling:

"My race groaned," she wrote. "It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. ... If Joe lost, we were back in slavery and beyond help."

 

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