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Maya Angelou's final chapter

Maya Angelou's final chapter

By Teresa K. Weaver, Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Sunday, May 5, 2002

On the morning after a party for her 74th birthday, Maya Angelou sits in the casual dining room of a home she keeps in Atlanta, sipping countless cups of coffee, quoting Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, her grandmother and occasionally herself, and reveling in her unique status as a self-styled sister-friend and wise-woman elder of the human tribe.

"The party was wonderful last night," she says in that familiar, mesmerizing, mile-deep voice, never completely slipping out of the cadence of poetry. "The drink was copious and the revelry was loud."

She laughs deeply and easily and often.

"What's the best part about being in my 70s?" she wonders aloud. "Just being in my 70s!"

Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Angelou has just published the sixth and final volume of her autobiography, which began more than 30 years ago with the critically acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The literary cycle is neatly spun: The last line of the new book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, is the first line of Caged Bird.

Angelou's life has been remarkable by any standard. Since the early 1980s, she has been a professor and writer-in-residence at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Before that, though, her r´sum´ included streetcar conductor, Creole cook, cocktail waitress, calypso dancer, actress, madam, magazine editor, civil rights activist, playwright, filmmaker and presidential poet.

Her childhood was spent shuttling -- along with her beloved brother, Bailey, now deceased -- between their devoutly religious grandmother's home in rural Arkansas and St. Louis, where their glamorous, maternally-challenged mother lived. When she was 8, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, and for six years she spoke rarely and only to her brother.

It's one of the most horrific of all the defining chapters in Angelou's life, but she tells it with great candor and grace.

"There are no natural writers," she says, "but there are natural rememberers."

A Song Flung Up to Heaven focuses on the tumultuous 1960s, including the assassinations of her friends Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the deadly riots in the Los Angeles community of Watts.

"We smelled the conflagration before we heard it, or even heard about it," Angelou writes in one of the book's most compelling passages. "The odor that drifted like a shadow over my neighborhood was complex because it was layered. Burning wood was the first odor that reached my nose, but it was soon followed by the smell of scorched food, then the stench of smoldering rubber. We had one hour of wondering what was burning before the television news reporters arrived breathlessly."

Angelou spends most of her time in Winston-Salem, but she maintains a house in an upper-middle-class Atlanta area neighborhood of oversize stucco homes on tiny lots. She spends about one weekend a month there, surrounded by the artwork of African-American painters and a steady stream of friends and family members. (Her grandson and his wife have provided her with two great-grandchildren.)

She's working on a cookbook of her favorite recipes, and she lends her name to an extensive line of Hallmark greeting cards and novelties ranging from pillows to wind chimes, each bearing bits of her easy-to-quote, jazz-tinged verse.

Regal in bearing and stature at 6 feet tall, Angelou takes dramatic pauses when she talks about her life and work. She relates stories with great enthusiasm, using her hands and face as storytelling tools. And her wit, wicked and unexpected, provides the punctuation at the end of every verbal chapter.

"I'm going to age gracefully," she vows. "After a while... "

Question: Was this last volume of your autobiography difficult to write?

Answer: The hardest. I had to write about the assassination of two friends. Two great men, but also friends -- brother-friends really. And about the unhappiness in my country that resulted in the Watts uprising.

Q: Just before Malcolm X was killed, you were so hopeful about his chances of truly ending racism in this country. That seems almost naive now, doesn't it?

A: No. No. Hope is not naive... You have to believe that this day will be better. You must.

Q: How do you feel about race relations now?

A: (Long pause.) I'm hopeful. When I go to a white friend's house and I see Asians and blacks, gay and straight... that, to me, is hope. But I no longer expect that anybody's going to say, "Open sesame," you know.

Q: You're so forthcoming in every volume of your autobiography. Do you ever worry about telling too much?

A: (Long laugh.) I believe that it is wise to tell the truth, and not just as an autobiographer. It's simpler to tell the truth. But you should never tell everything you know. Nobody really wants to hear all of that...

Autobiography is a hard business, you know? James Baldwin told the man who became my editor how to get me to write the first book. He had asked me maybe three or four times to consider writing an autobiography, and I said, "No, I'm a playwright and a poet, thank you very much." But the last time he called, he said, "Miss Angelou, I won't bother you again because I realize it's almost impossible to write autobiography as literature." And I said, "Well, maybe I will try."

I would like to say honestly that I have grown beyond that sort of response when someone says, "You can't do something." But I have not. I've gotten old, my bones ache, my teeth are falling out and I still respond that way. I'm not proud of that! That somebody can punch a button and I jump like a Pavlovian dog...

Q: It's been almost 10 years since you delivered On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton's first inauguration. Is he still a friend?

A: We were never friends. We are friendly. I don't socialize with him and Mrs. Clinton. I've been invited to some things and I've gone. He was my president, and I admire him. And her.

Q: How do you feel about his legacy?

A: It's great... Of course, everything depends on who writes his legacy.

Q: Why is this your last autobiography? What about all the interesting things that have happened to you since?

A: I knew I would never want to write about writing. I leave that to Marcel Proust. Some interesting things have happened, that's true. But the most interesting have been brought about because of the books. And I can't write about the books. I knew about three books ago I would end it, and this was the time. This is also the time for this book, to write about all the horrors and yet to see the human spirit. It's so amazing.

Q: When did you know you were a writer?

A: I knew I could write by the time I was 20. I could write. I had spent six years as a mute, and so I had read everything. And I had memorized. I memorized 60 sonnets. And I memorized Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen... and Edgar Allan Poe. I loved Poe so much I called him "Eap" to myself.

Q: The six years of self-imposed silence seem to indicate that you understood the power of language very early.

A: When I was told that the man who had raped me had been found dead, I presumed that my voice had killed him. So I thought it was wise not to speak -- my voice just might go out and kill people.

Q: What are your proudest accomplishments?

A: I'm grateful for my son (novelist Guy Johnson). If I have a monument in the world, it is him. He's a knockout...

I'm grateful to be a practicing Christian. I'm always amazed when people say, "I'm a Christian." I think, "Already?" It's an ongoing process. You know, you keep trying. And blowing it and trying and blowing it ...

It is my nature to be religious. If I'd been born in Israel, I would have been a Jew. If I were born in Bombay, I would have been a Hindu or a Buddhist.

Q: Are you a churchgoer?

A: I do go to church. I go for the sermon, and I go for the music. In black churches, the sermon is always poetry.

Q: Anything else you're grateful for?

A: I'm grateful for the love of language.

Q: What will you write now that you're done with autobiography?

A: I'll be writing essays. I love that form. I really do. It's so exasperating. It challenges me, almost as much as these Hallmark cards.

Q: Writing those challenges you? It appears to come so naturally.

A: Girl, please. Some critics have said I'm a natural writer. Well, that's like being a natural open-heart surgeon.

When I'm writing, I keep a hotel room. I have everything taken off the walls, and I bring in yellow pads, a Roget's Thesaurus, a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry. I sit at a little table and play solitaire... My grandmother used to say when I was young, "You know, that's not even on my littlest mind." And so I determined that the human being has a big mind and a little mind. The cards occupy my little mind so I can get to the big mind and hear the language.

Q: You never write at home?

A: I can edit at home. I can do that at night, after I've made dinner and operated in the familiar. I'll take the pages of the morning and look at them. If I do five pages in longhand, that's good. If I do seven, hello! If I do seven pages, I give myself a stout Johnnie Walker Black.

Q: What is the role of a poet in the post-Sept. 11 world?

A: He/she must be writing, be kicking it. This is going to sound contradictory, but the poet must be at war against violence, against ugliness and hate. Sept. 11 was a hate crime. It was a mega-hate crime. Now if we're against hate crimes, we have to take it out of the microcosm and into the macrocosm. To be fair, we're against hate crimes everywhere.

Q: Do you have any disappointments? Any regrets?

A: Oh, I wish I had known more, done better, all of that. Like everybody.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I'm writing a cookbook... And I do want to write some essays. I'm keen to see what makes us tick. I'm amazed at the human being. I'm amazed at us. I think our greatest problem is lack of longevity. We live such short lives that we can't really see how far we've come. And because of our short lives, we want instant gratification. We are carnivorous beings who decided not only not to eat our brothers and sisters -- who may be delicious -- but to try to respect them. And even to try to love them ... We're incredible... If we could just not kill each other, and ourselves, what would we become in a few thousand years?

Q: You seem pretty comfortable with the status of wise elder.

A: (Long laugh.) Ask me in about 10 years.


Selected readings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou has published six volumes of autobiography, two books of essays, nine collections of poetry, two children's books and two picture books. Here's a sampling:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970): Her first volume of autobiography, which covers her life up to age 16, was a critical and commercial success.

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971): This first collection of poems, which earned Angelou a Pulitzer Prize nomination, introduced readers to her style of short lyrics and musical rhythms.

All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986): This fifth volume of autobiography describes her four-year sojourn in Ghana.

Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993): She drew on her spirituality and life experiences for this book of essays.

On the Pulse of Morning (1993): Angelou's recorded version of this poem, written for Bill Clinton's first presidential inauguration, won a spoken-word Grammy Award.

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