Maya Angelou is a true Renaissance woman: poet, author, playwright, professor, stage and screen performer and civil rights activist. Faith Lapidus has her story.
In 1993, Maya Angelou was invited to host an awards ceremony for the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. A past recipient of the award herself, Angelou explained how the winners were chosen. "You have to have started with nothing, absolutely nothing, not some part of nothing, but absolutely on the bottom," she told the audience. "And you have to have, by dint of will, hard work, God's blessings, and being in the right place at the right time, have achieved a great deal, and then started to give it back." Maya Angelou could hardly have given a better description of her own life.
Born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1928, she spent much of her childhood with her grandmother in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. For southern blacks, those years were a time of racial segregation and economic hardship. What made life tolerable were the stories, songs and folk wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.
Through a traumatic youth and a series of jobs as a waitress, a cook and a streetcar conductor, she never lost her passion for the arts, over the years studying music, drama and dance. During the 1950s, Angelou took part in a 22-nation tour of the Broadway musical Porgy and Bess. She later remembered a triumphant night in the North African nation of Morocco, when each of the lead women singers was invited to perform an operatic aria. Instead, she sang a black spiritual, and brought a crowd of 4500 cheering people to its feet.
"I had no idea of the power of this inheritance," she says now. "I thought that night, 'Oh, it's because they feel sorry for the poignancy of my slave history.' Only to find, of course, that the people in the audience had no idea of my slave history. Why, then? I suggest that the great art belongs to all the people, all the time."
Maya Angelou's literary career began after writer James Baldwin and other friends heard her childhood stories and urged her to write them down. She published the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1970. Later installments included All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, a book about her four years in Ghana in the early 1960s.
She and other black Americans had traveled to Africa with high hopes, in search of a country they could finally call home. She was amazed to discover how many African influences had survived in black American culture. But she also came to the conclusion that she belonged back in the United States. "My sojourn to Africa gave me the sense of being at once at home there, once, twice, three centuries removed, but home, home in the United States. This is my country," she explains. "There is something about the commonality of our history, which brings a community together to get deeper into understanding."
Back in America, Angelou went on to achieve new triumphs. She continued the chronicle of her life, publishing the best-selling sixth installment in 2002. The audio book of A Song Flung Up to Heaven captured a Grammy award for Best Spoken Word Album the following year.
For many Americans, the most memorable image of Maya Angelou comes from January 1993, when she read a poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. In On the Pulse of Morning, she pitted timeless forces of nature against the unnatural wrongs human beings have visited upon one another down through the ages. But — standing on the podium, overlooking the crowd gathered on the National Mall — she ended the poem with an image of hope and reconciliation, the same kind of vision that has infused all her work.
Here on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes
And into your brother's face,
Your country and say simply, very simply, with hope,
About to turn 80, Maya Angelou still writes and teaches, and is reaching a new audience as a talk show host on satellite radio. Still politically involved, she has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.