An American icon with deep Trini roots: The ultimate emancipation story. Legendary icon Dr Maya Angelou talks to writer Renee Cummings
DR MAYA ANGELOU has emancipated millions. Generations have been liberated by the wisdom of her words. And many more have been freed by her voice. It is spiritual; a salve for the soul that soothes all kinds of pain. Some of the deepest wounds have been healed by her honesty. There were times when she held America tight in her bosom, rocking the troubles away, with a bountiful liturgy of everyday prayer that she wrote to quiet even the tiniest fear. On other occasions, she illuminated the land with her broad smile; making an entire nation celebrate its commonalities and differences.
She made African-Americans honour their Africanness and she made America understand why these traditions were worth celebrating. For people of colour all over the world, she came like an answer to a prayer. "West Indians and African-Americans are more alike than we are different. Culturally, we also share the same experience; the way we use music, literature and lyrics; and that feeling for family is very tight in African-American and Caribbean communities." Her voice is powerful and overpowering; same as the day I met her 13 years ago, at the National Arts Club in historic Gramercy Park, on Manhattan's East Side; she was receiving its highest honour.
"We both love telling these long tales with no documents to back them up," she laughs. Her laugh is one of the most recognised in America; full of all kinds of emotions, all sorts of stories and experiences, journeys and joys, tribulations and triumphs. "The black man in the Caribbean and in America has had to fight, every step of the way, for his own dignity, and sometimes, he thinks the black woman is his enemy. But we are not his enemy," she adds. "We were sold together and bought together. We were on the auction block together."
Her voice is full of magic and music. There's a rhythm to her reasoning. She has lived the blues and in 82 short years, her life has hit all the highs and lows of jazz. Iambic and insightful, every word she speaks tells a story, independent of the sentence it belongs to; her voice is also full of calypso. "My mother's father jumped off a ship, in Florida, at the turn of the twentieth century," she says. "But then, he went back to Trinidad, got his father and then they both jumped ship in Tampa." Her laughter is deep like the river Jordan. Much of what she knows about her great-grandfather and her grandfather is family lore; stories she heard as a child. "My great-grandfather stayed in Florida and became a cigar roller."
Her grandfather travelled north. "He became a porter, in St Louis, on the railroad, married and had a pile of kids; six: four boys and two girls." He died in the early 1930s, when she was very young. "My grandfather had a mantra," she laughs. "He was a big man, mighty, and he would tell his sons, if you get in a fight and go to jail, I will sell the house to get you out. But if you go to jail for stealing, I'm leaving you there. My grandfather was a tough man but he was a fair man. He didn't suffer fools gladly. He didn't believe in whipping his children. He spoke so severely that they would weep. He could scold you that severely." She has little memory of him. "I met him but most of what I know is through what my uncles and mother said. I learned a lot about Trinidad's culture from my mom. The food and the recipes. I learned to cook the codfish, the ochroes, and the greens. And my best friend, the famous writer Paule Marshall, is also West Indian."
She's a storyteller like no other; so good at it, that 40 years ago she inspired a new genre of American literature. Her autobiographical work is celebrated as the advent of a revolutionary literary tradition of Black Women Writers. Her poetry is some of the most recited in the world, and her inspirational sayings are probably some of the most emailed, in the world. She told women all over that we were phenomenal, as she took the ordinary details of womanhood and made them extraordinary. "We still have these men to deal with," she laughs. "We have to be strong and at the same time we have to be tactful. We want our children to have fathers and we want the fathers to be kind and responsible." Her words are a stockpile of hope.
It took four books to tell her life story. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings captured her early life, from three to 16. The first 10 years were in Arkansas with her father's mother and the last three were spent between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with her mother. It was a life of displacement, humiliation, loss and rape, at eight, at the hands of her mother's boyfriend. She described her pain as "an unnecessary insult" and "the rust of the razor that threatens the throat." Living in fear of the Ku Klux Klan made her life in the South an abomination against God and man. She punished herself with a self-imposed silence when the rapist was killed in an act of revenge. It took many years before she would speak again.
Her voice is solemn. "I would encourage adults to not blame the child. The child is the victim. And don't allow the child to blame her or himself. Try to love that child. Tell her or tell him that they are clean and it had to nothing to do with them; that they are the victims and it was nothing that they did." She endured one of the most brutal coming-of age stories, followed by an unwanted pregnancy, at 16, when her only child, a son, Guy, was born. A teen mom, broke and bored, she shared her life with pimps and prostitutes. In Gather Together In My Name, she wrote of the dehumanising experiences. She worked as a short-order cook, moonlighted as a prostitute, did double-duty as a madam in charge of her own prostitutes, and fell in love with a drug addict. She was on the brink of destruction; "like a tree on a river responding to the winds and the tides".
She eventually rescued herself from spiritual waste and the oppression of underclass living and began Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry like Christmas. She had picked up the pieces and put them all together. From down in the dumps, she had pulled herself up. She was signing calypso and dancing. She appeared in the legendary African-American musical Porgy & Bess; an amazing accomplishment. In her late twenties, she did the unthinkable — married a white man — and took off to Egypt. Her Pan-African awakening, The Heart of a Woman, is liberating and life-transforming. In Ghana, she met Kwame Nkrumah, became good friends with Malcolm X and also with Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress. She worked as a journalist for the Arab Observer and joined the African Liberation Movement. She also met Stokley Carmichael, a Trinidadian, who would become Kwame Ture, a stalwart of the Black Power Movement.
"He and I didn't get on. He was quite rude to me in Algeria because of something he thought I said about his then wife. So he embarrassed me in public," she says. "I agreed with him politically but socially I require courtesy. So I disagreed with him on that." She hastened to add that he leaned over her chair and whispered, "I'll talk to you back at the hotel." In her laughter, it was obvious she considered it an apology. When she moved back to America, she took root in Harlem, married an abusive freedom fighter but found the courage to leave him. She met Billie Holiday and heard Dr Martin Luther King speak. She was inspired to achieve the unimaginable. But she never knew she would speak at the funeral of his wife Coretta Scott King.
She stood proud, at the inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton, and held the morning by its pulse, telling all of America to look into each other's eyes and simply say 'Good Morning'. Majestic, in height and heart, the world watched a legend and wondered how this girl named Marguerite, who didn't speak for years, became one of the greatest voices ever heard. "I really can't say which one of my poems brings me the greatest joy. Evaluating my poetry is like evaluating your children." She has written collections and sold millions of copies. Her cookbook was also a bestseller. Her life was made into a movie; she has acted and directed. She has mentored generations of American scholarship and talent. Black and White America look up to her.
Early, in the last presidential campaign, she had thrown her support behind her close friend Hillary Clinton for whom she has "profound affection". But she realised "something great" was happening in America; changed her mind and endorsed Senator Barack Obama whose sister, she later found out, was named after her. "Hillary made it to the glass ceiling and she has left 18 million scratches on the glass ceiling," she said, in Greensboro, North Carolina, at a Women for Obama rally. "But we need someone to break that ceiling down and that's Barack Obama," she affirmed as she welcomed Michelle Obama to the podium. The day after he won, she was so overwhelmed, she cried, on national television. She said America was "growing up and beyond" it's idiocy and ignorance.
She's considered the great master of words. She never attended college but holds several honorary degrees. She has always said it is "imperative that we learn humility" and exercise "an attitude of gratitude" for all those who have paved the way before us. Our conversation is coming to a close. She has much to attend to in Winston, Salem where she lives. "Right now, I'm working on being very good, like a good Christian, or like a good Muslim, it is hard, it is serious, it is so serious. I'm 82, so I'm really working on being good." And finally, I ask her, what has been her greatest life experience. "Talking to you," she says. "Yes, talking to you; you may be the last person I speak to because life is like that. I don't compare what I did with what I'm yet to do."