The many lives of Maya Angelou The writer reflects on her 'philosophy of liberation'

December 14, 1990|By Sujata Banerjee | Sujata Banerjee,Evening Sun Staff

AT 62, WRITER MAYA ANGELOU can look back at the shy, unspeaking little girl who lived in Stamps, Arkansas during the Depression and remember herself. She can also reflect upon the ballet dancer, the chanteuse, the opera singer, the screen writer, the playwright, the poet, the autobiographer and claim these for herself too.

"The more liberated a person is the more free she can be to look at herself through various and sundry prisms. It is indicative of a narrow society when we say, 'because he's a brick mason he can't like ballet,' or 'because she's an intellectual, she can't speak slang.'"

Angelou likes ballet, likes slang, and although she likes writing, she shudders at the thought of doing that alone.

"I don't think I ever want to consider that kind of imprisonment, that kind of isolation!" she says.

Angelou spoke last night at Johns Hopkins University's Milton S. Eisenhower symposium "Dreams Deferred: Perspectives on Race Relations." Three hours before her presentation, she relaxed in her hotel room and talked about her many lives.

"Being a natural writer is like being a natural concert pianist who specializes in Prokofiev!" she scoffs. "To write well one works hard at understanding the language. I believe it's almost impossible to say what you mean and make someone else understand."

Angelou is now wrestling with the notes for the fifth and final volume in her acclaimed autobiographical series that began with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in 1970, inspired by a challenge over dinner with author James Baldwin.

She began that book as Marguerite Johnson, the little girl in Stamps, a sleepy town where she lived with her mother, brother and grandparents. "Maya" was a nickname her brother Bailey called her; that, along with a slight adaptation of her first husband's surname, Angelos, became her stage name when she began performing as a singer in the 1950s.

The calm of Angelou's childhood was shattered when she was raped at age 8. The rapist was murdered a few hours after his conviction. Because she felt responsible, Angelou stopped talking. The encouragement of a kind neighbor led her to reading, writing, and ultimately speaking again.

"For a number of years, I was a mute," says Angelou. "I wrote because I read. I really thought I could make my whole body into an ear to inhale the sounds from the room, the radio, the pulpit, to be active in the absorption of sound."

In her teens, Angelou moved with Bailey and her mother to San Francisco. She did not dream of dancing, singing or writing, but she knew she wanted power.

"After I left Stamps -- when I was 14 or 15 -- I thought I'd be a really successful real estate agent and have my own briefcase!" she says laughing. "The ironies of life are wonderful. A few years ago, a friend had a 14-year-old black girl visiting from Philadelphia who was over the moon to see me. I said, bring her over and it turned out she had heard a few of my poems, but she had never read one line and she said she loved me. I said why, for what? It turned out that when she was 13 and in the Philadelphia airport, I came through, walking with a briefcase and surrounded by all these Sky Caps. She went up to them later and asked who I was . . . She decided I was exactly who she wanted to be."

Angelou completed high school and gave birth to her son, Guy, the result of a single encounter with the most popular boy in high school. Determined to support him, she found work as an exotic dancer and did so well financially the bar's strippers were jealous and had her fired. Happily, her next career as a nightclub singer earned her even more money and was followed by a role in a government-sponsored production of "Porgy and Bess" that toured the world in the mid-1950s. Then she was off to work as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana. In the mid-1960s, she returned to the United States to act in plays both on and off-Broadway and to write television programs, screenplays and film scores.

The overwhelming passion that brought her back home was civil rights. Beginning in the early '60s, she served in leadership roles in the movement, working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Angelou recalls that the day she returned from Africa, she spoke with Malcolm X on the telephone about plans to get together; two days later, he was assassinated.

Witness to changing roles for blacks, she began to write her own story. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" was followed by "Gather Together in My Name," "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas," "The Heart of a Woman" and "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes." Angelou has also written six books of poetry, including "I Shall Not Be Moved," published this year.

Angelou's final autobiography will focus on the civil rights movement, not her career as a writer.

"I don't want to write about writing," she says. "It becomes too incestuous."

She combines writing with teaching at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she has a lifetime appointment as professor of American studies. As can be imagined, hers is no ordinary class.

"I teach the philosophy of liberation," says Angelou, examining literature from around the world for examples of imprisonment and escape. In her own life, Angelou has found she escaped the South only to come home again to a warm embrace.

"We get caught up in our psychological history, we talk about the South as if it's this or that, a repository of all bad things -- but it's beautiful!" says Angelou. "That's why people have fought for it. The place where I live is lovely. I'm a Southern black woman. I like the pace, the rhythm, the intimacy of the South."

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