Turning 75 this month, Maya Angelou has led many lives. She is best known as a writer, for her numerous books of poetry and her six poignant memoirs, including the masterful 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In February, she won a Grammy for the recorded reading of her most recent memoir, A Song Flung Up to Heaven. Her works have earned her more than 30 honorary degrees as well as nominations for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. She wrote “On the Pulse of Morning” for the 1993 swearing-in of President Bill Clinton, becoming only the second poet in U. S. history—Robert Frost was the first, for John F. Kennedy— invited to compose an inaugural poem.
Less well known are Angelou’s other lives: as a singer; as a composer; as a dancer in Porgy and Bess; as an actor in the Obie-winning play The Blacks and in films such as Calypso Heat Wave and How to Make an American Quilt; as a civil rights worker with Martin Luther King, Jr.; as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana; as a writer for television and Hollywood; as director of the 1998 film Down in the Delta. Angelou is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at North Carolina’s WakeForestUniversity in Winston-Salem. She is constantly on the lecture circuit and a regular guest on talk shows; she recently created a line of greeting cards for Hallmark. And there is little sign of her slowing down.
But when we met recently in her art-filled home in Winston- Salem, it was her family, not her varied career, that she most wanted to discuss. Our conversation often returned to the loved ones who helped her triumph over the tragedies of her childhood and made her believe she could meet whatever challenge life threw in her path.
Her grandmother Annie Henderson was one of the most important, a pious woman who ran a general store in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou lived most of her childhood with her grandmother, whom she called “Momma.” Angelou’s sometimes-absentee mother, Vivian Baxter, had a steel will and several careers of her own. She was an inadvertent player in an early, formative trauma in Angelou’s life. When Angelou was 8 and briefly living with Baxter in St. Louis, her mother’s boyfriend raped Angelou. The man was arrested, convicted and released; soon after, he was found beaten to death. Believing she had caused the killing because she had told of the rape, Angelou refused to speak for several years; only her beloved older brother, Bailey, could coax her to talk. He remained a source of support throughout her life until his death more than a year ago. And there is Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, 57, author of Echoes of a Distant Summer and one other novel. He is, she says, her “monument in the world.”
You’ve said that society’s view of the black woman is such a threat to her well-being that she will die daily unless she determines how she sees herself. How do you see yourself?
I just received a letter yesterday from the University of Milan. Aperson is doing a doctoral dissertation on my work. It’s called Sapienza, which means wisdom. I’m considered wise, and sometimes I see myself as knowing. Most of the time, I see myself as wanting to know. And I see myself as a very interested person. I’ve never been bored in my life.
You have never been bored? How is that possible?
Oh God, if I were bored, now that would interest me. I’d think, my God, how did that happen and what’s going on? I’d be caught up in it. Are you kidding? Bored?
I realized when I was about 20 that I would die. It frightened me so. I mean, I had heard about it, had been told and all that, but that I . . . ? [She points at herself and raises her brows as if in disbelief.] It so terrified me that I doublelocked the doors; I made certain that the windows were double- locked—trying to keep death out—and finally I admitted that there was nothing I could do about it. Once I really came to that conclusion, I started enjoying life, and I enjoy it very much.
Another occurrence took place at about the same time— maybe about a year later—and the two occurrences liberated me forever.