Poet for the new America
Sunday January 24, 1993
During the weeks before President Bill Clinton's inauguration, Maya Angelou began work at 5.30 every morning in a hotel room and with the help of sherry, a dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus and the Bible , tried to write a poem. She filled six yellow pads but still no luck. She phoned her friend Jessica Mitford 'quite distraught, in a terrible state with the responsibility of it, trying to meet the deadline. But we knew she would pull it off. She's a superstar.'
The result was that on Wednesday she became the first poet to appear at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost was invited to do so by John F. Kennedy in 1960. She says that before reciting the poem, directly after Clinton's inaugural speech, 'I tried not to realize where I was. I tried to suspend myself. I was afraid I might lose my composure.'
Her nerves did not show. Addressing America from the steps of the Capitol, she looked magnificent, sternly theatrical with an unsmiling bow mouth. She wore a coat with brass buttons, a strange reminder of the eight-year-old Maya Angelou who stood in a courtroom, terrified at the sight of the man who had raped her. She wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , the autobiography for which she is most famous: 'I was glad that Mother had let me wear the navy-blue winter coat with brass buttons... the coat was a friend that I hugged to me in the strange and unfriendly place.'
It is extraordinary to reflect on the distance Maya Angelou has traveled from that poor black child who grew up in her grandmother's store in Stamps, Arkansas (25 miles from Clinton's birthplace), to the grandly imperative 64-year-old woman embraced by the new President.
Although public poetry is often a doomed commodity, her inauguration poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' managed to avoid the usual pitfalls (strained sentiment, pomposity) by its resolute simplicity. Inspired by Negro spirituals , it was a graceful elemental address.
It called movingly for peace and racial unity, and urged America to learn from its history and to hope. Its power was that it was rooted in the past (listening, it seemed almost as if the poem had always been there) but at the same time it was fresh and immediate. It lacked the sentimentality of Clinton's speech but it perfectly matched its mood of spring and renewal:
Lift up your faces, you have a
Angelou read it frowning slightly until, at the end, she made the ordinary words 'Good morning' carry the weight of her message and her voice lightened. And when she spoke of 'a wise rock', a wise rock was exactly how she appeared: more than six feet tall and indomitable.
In England she first became famous in the early Seventies. Since then, her five-volume autobiography has sold more than 700,000 copies on this side of the Atlantic. Five volumes might seem excessive (some critics felt she should have stopped at two) but Angelou has led more lives than a cat. She has been a prostitute, a professor, a Creole cook, an aide to Martin Luther King , a singer, an actress, a dancer, editor of an Egyptian newspaper and a single mother. But more than all of these, she is a writer of poetry and plays as well as autobiography.
At their best, her books are transforming. Like her contemporaries Toni Morrison, Rosa Guy and Alice Walker, she has written about the particular experience of black oppression and made it universal. She speaks straight from the heart('heart' is a word she uses often). She has a lyricism learnt from black preachers, a way of making language sing.
She was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St Louis, Missouri. Her brother Bailey, to whom she was close, named her Maya, speaking of her proudly as 'my-a-sister'. She lived with her mother until she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.
It is the unexpected grace and courage of her writing about this terrible subject that moves readers: 'The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.'
Mr. Freeman was murdered before he could serve his short prison sentence. Maya felt she was to blame for his death. For years the trauma made her virtually mute. She could speak only to her brother, fearing her words would contaminate others. Eventually, they were sent away to live with their grandmother.
She describes herself feeling at that time like an 'old biscuit, dirty and inedible', but Arkansas, where nothing much happened, was the perfect place for her. Her grandmother, an elder of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, was to be her salvation, and she remains a practicing Christian.
In 1940, she and Bailey rejoined their mother in San Francisco. At 16, after a brief sexual encounter, she became pregnant. Guy Johnson, whom she has since described as the joy of her life, was born in 1944.
Having a baby meant forgoing a scholarship to study. She was forced instead to support herself and turned to prostitution for survival. But it was not long before she was able to make money in the theatre: she found work singing in Porgy and Bess. Now, she blames her wild dancing years for the arthritis that afflicts her.
In the Sixties she went to live in Egypt and in Ghana. She wrote the first volume of her autobiography in 1970. In 1982, she was appointed Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she still teaches. She lives near the university in a house filled with African art; she has a maid and a white woman for a gardener, but she's the cook. The huge kitchen table is the hub of the house. She is memorably hospitable and has an extraordinary effect on visitors. People many people, it seems, of different races, both sexes and all ages fall in love with Maya Angelou. When asked to describe her physical presence, some talk as if affected by partial blindness, dazzled, unable to see her, only able to say helplessly that she is more than six feet tall.
Her friends speak in enchanted unison. (Hearing them one after another is like bingeing on meringues). Emma Tennant describes her as 'dignified and extraordinary. Somebody with no superiority whatsoever, she’s incredibly aware of how difficult life is. She looks splendid, like a roguish Queen, wearing terrific flowing robes. She's the biggest overcomer I know.'
Margaret Busby, an authority on black writers, says: 'She has a great capacity for love, to give and receive it and an ability to see through phoniness'. Diane Abbott MP describes her as 'impressive, charismatic, my heroine'. She has a mother-daughter relationship with the television personality Oprah Winfrey (at Oprah's suggestion, Maya is writing a 'how to' book, on how to live). She could also write a book on how to perform. Friends say she can even win over audiences of intransigent Southerners.
The less charming side of this is clear. She can be spellbound by herself. She demands respect. She has said: 'I do not suffer fools gladly' and 'I never do anything I don't want to do.' Interviewers are sometimes warned to address her as Dr Angelou, and to 'be humble'.
In the same way that some women are coy about their age, she will not reveal how often she has been married. She has only one child and a grandson. But her husbands include a Greek sailor, a South African revolutionary, and Paul du Feu (Germaine Greer's ex-husband). When a friend asked about the break-up of one of her marriages, her reply was: 'He was a wonderful person and we had many happy years.'
She has an alchemical, inexhaustible ability to turn bad to good. But she doesn't always know when to stop telling her own story. A member of the audience at a memorial for C. L. R. James was shocked by the way she talked about herself and her life overlooking poor James entirely.
She is not good at being criticized, as Joan Riley, a young black novelist, discovered when she tried it. She believes that Maya Angelou's sainthood depends on trauma; that her suffering has put her beyond criticism. In her view, she was a 'safe, non-threatening' choice for Bill Clinton to make.
herself, when asked to name her faults, says simply: 'I
never make friends with anyone who does not love me back.'