Appreciative fans 'bless' Maya Angelou

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE

February 21, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

FOR AN ACCOUNT of Maya Angelou's day at Pyramid Books, we turn to 10-year-old Munir Bahar, who surveyed her book-signing efforts from the psychology/self-help department, and penned his own poem:

Maya Angelou is

nice, good tempered

wrote many books

is 63 years old

is tall

were's glasses

is famous

dresses well

has many friends

autographed many books

had a good day.

As Ms. Angelou sat in the store's office yesterday, trying to gather her composure after signing hundreds of books, she listened to the recitation and laughed.

"What a blessing," she said.

But this was just one blessing experienced by the poet and author of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Her day began in the mobbed Mondawmin Mall bookstore and ended last night when she spoke to a sold-out audience at Notre Dame College's Women's Institute.

"You delight my heart," she said after receiving a standing ovation from the crowd of 1,600. "I'm going to talk about women, but . . . what I really want to do is talk about love."

For Ms. Angelou, however, the major challenge was meeting the demands of an extremely affectionate public. After signing books at Pyramid for more than an hour, Ms. Angelou surveyed the throngs ahead, the TV newscasters behind and heaved a sigh. "I'm falling," she said.

Grabbing the hands of two children, she cleared a book display and stood on top of it.

"You honor me so," she told the hundreds she didn't have time to meet. "It's greater than salary, greater than fame. When you pray for me, pray for me by name -- the tall black lady . . . Maya Angelou."

The applause made it obvious that they would not soon forget her name. But rather than interpreting it as sheer flattery, Ms. Angelou took it as a sign that "my people are saying, 'You're on the road, sister. Thank you'. . . . And when I say 'my people' I don't mean just blacks."

Such praise delights her while also bringing its share of pressures -- including a schedule jam-packed with speeches, appearances and interviews. She copes by praying and "remembering the payment of those who have gone before.

"In all my work, what I'm trying for is to exhibit grace," she said.

She is admired in part for her diverse talents. Ms. Angelou confessed, in fact, to having trouble answering when a stranger asks the simple question: What do you do?

Is she a poet, professor, actress, singer, songwriter or activist? Most often she responds: "writer."

But despite having a career that has included writing four autobiographies, five books of poetry and several plays, acting in ground-breaking TV events such as "Roots" and being a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, Ms. Angelou isn't satisfied with herself.

"I have not become the person I'm going to be. I have not helped God enough yet to create me. . . . I'm on the road," she said.

The road has had its rough terrain. Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Mo., she grew up in the segregated town of Stamps, Ark., was raped as a child by her mother's lover, refused to speak for several years after and became an unwed mother at 16.

Yet despite outward appearances of being, as she has said, "a born loser" she went on to break new ground for black women in many creative fields. She also became an eloquent voice in the civil rights movement, working as an assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Love, she says, allowed her to thrive. "It's very important to understand that black Americans, to the contrary of what's been said, have been loved and loved deeply. And it's love that prevails. I don't mean sentimentality when I use the word love. I don't mean mush or indulgence. I mean that deep belief in you," she said.

She found that love yesterday as people lined up in the bookstore two hours before her appearance there. They took vacation days, lunch hours or just called in sick to have the chance to meet Ms. Angelou. Children recited her poems, city officials read proclamations and fans kissed her cheek.

She was at turns gracious and firm - meeting such enthisiasm with thanks, praise and advice.

To a student she offered this: "Compliment yourself and press yourself. Don't ever be satisfied."

To a young black man she said: "Remember you are at risk. Every part of society wants some part of your anatomy.

After being interviewed by two local newscasters, she compared one to Oprah Winfrey ("I met Oprah here. She's a daughter to me.") while telling another she needed "work."

Local writer Carmen Alexander brought a manuscript she was hoping Ms. Angelou would read. "I have a Maya Angelou attitude," said the 35-year-old who lives in West Baltimore. "My words hurt, but they help. They cut, but they heal."

Ms. Angelou is currently working on a new series for PBS called "Maya Angelou's America." The first segment, which will be carried by MPT (channels 22 and 67), premieres in May, she said. "I'm trying to see what Americans look like through my eyes," she said. "I just want to look at all of us in all our magnificent colors."

As her 64th birthday approaches in April, she plans to continue traveling, speaking and writing. "I think about [slowing down]," she said. "But I don't know how long I'll be here. I don't think slowing down will give me one extra day, so while I'm present I want to be totally pesent."

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