Writing forced her to craft pessimism into reflection, reflection into gratitude.
Writing forced her to craft pessimism into reflection, reflection into gratitude.
It’s six in the morning and the sun has not yet risen. Dr Maya Angelou arrives at a hotel where she keeps a room. She has kept a hotel room in every town she’s lived in, but not for the purpose of sleeping. On the bed she places a yellow writing pad, a pen, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, the King James Bible, a bottle of sherry and playing cards. She lies on the bed, propping herself up with her elbows. She takes out the cards, shuffles and deals a game of solitaire. She calmly moves a few cards around, and then, in that unusual privacy of a hotel room in daylight, she begins to remember.
She remembers a train moving south. She, Marguerite as she was called then, and her brother, Bailey Jr, only three and four years old, have just been sent from Long Beach, California to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. As every mile passes, she and her brother move farther away from their young mother, Vivian Baxter, towards the stone-clad southern religiosity of their grandmother, who they will come to call “Momma.”
Maya remembers living with Momma Henderson and her crippled son, Uncle Willie, at the back of the only general store in the African-American area of Stamps. Momma was the tallest woman in the world, an image of power and strength. Momma intended to teach her grandchildren not to question tradition, but to take the paths in life that she and her descendants had taken and knew to be safe. Momma imposed a life that swung with the rigid rhythm of a metronome: mornings at school, afternoons studying, evening chores, and a dinner of sliced onions and sardines followed by prayers and sleep. Momma had many rules: “Thou shalt not be dirty”, “Thou shalt not be impudent” and “Thou shalt not waste.”
Maya remembers how Momma’s store lay in the centre of the town’s activities. Men and women working in the cotton-fields would arrive at dawn to buy provisions for the day ahead. In the mornings, barbers would sit their customers in the shade of the porch and cut hair and gossip. In the evenings, bluesmen, on their ceaseless rambling through the South, sat outside and sang their mournful tunes. Sometimes the townsfolk would speak about the white people, which always meant bad news. At that age, she didn’t really know what white people looked like, and understood only that they were different; that they were richer and to be dreaded.
Maya remembers the harshness of black Southern life, and that it was made bearable only because of her graceful older brother, Bailey. He would tell her about their parents, who lived far away in a heaven called California, where the sun always shone. She remembers it was Bailey who changed her name from Marguerite to Maya. First he called her “My Sister”, which became “Mya Sister”, and finally, “Maya”. When she was seven, a man who called himself “Daddy”, who drove a shiny car, said he was taking her and Bailey to see their mother in St. Louis, Missouri. She remembers seeing her mother, Vivian Baxter, whose beauty assailed her. This woman is too beautiful to have children, she thought.
Maya remembers how St. Louis, with its flushing toilets, supermarkets and traffic sounds, was like a foreign country. When she was frightened, she would sleep with Vivian Baxter and her boyfriend, Mr Freeman. One morning she woke alone in the bed with Mr Freeman. She remembers what it felt like to be held tight in his arms while he touched himself, and then, when he raped her. He said: “If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.” “No, sir, Mr Freeman, I won’t tell.” Maya remembers becoming sick and going to hospital. She remembers testifying in court against Mr Freeman, but still feeling that in God’s eyes it was her fault. When Mr Freeman was found dead in a car park days later, she remembers feeling like a gutless doll. That’s when she discovered that the only way to survive was to stop talking altogether, and hopefully achieve perfect internal silence.
Maya remembers that her silence was misunderstood as insolence, so she and Bailey were sent back to Momma Henderson in Stamps. Still mute yet intelligent beyond her years, Momma arranged for Maya to meet Mrs Flowers, who taught her the life-giving power of literature. She remembers how Mrs Flowers coaxed her voice from the depths of her soul by making her recite poetry. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper,” Mrs Flowers said. “It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
Maya remembers when the time finally came for Momma to send them back to Vivian Baxter in San Francisco. “You’re growing up, I’m getting old, and Uncle Willie is crippled.” She remembers San Francisco, the Bay and the fog, Chinatown, the bridge, and how, for a 13-year-old Southern girl, the city promised beauty and freedom. She remembers telling Vivian Baxter that she was going to become the first streetcar conductorette in California, and then sitting in the railway office every day until they interviewed her. When she finally got the job, Vivian Baxter would drive her to work before sunrise each morning, and follow the streetcar with a gun in her glove box, just to make sure her daughter was safe. That was how her mother did things. She also remembers watching Vivian Baxter drink and dance in their kitchen, her small, tight body covered in velvety skin, and comparing it to her own six-foot tall, cucumber-shaped body. Vivian Baxter “comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy.”
At 17, Maya gave birth to her son, Gus, whose father was not in the picture. By the time she was 22, she was living independently in San Francisco with a five-year-old, two jobs, two rented rooms and cooking privileges down the hall. Maya remembers Tosh Angelos, a handsome and dignified Greek man who swept her off her feet. They married in weeks, and moved into a spacious house where they were comfortable and secure. Tosh was a good father to Gus, but a jealous husband. He didn’t like it when Maya went to church or dance lessons. “You are never going to be a professional dancer, so I don’t understand why you’re playing with dance.” After a few years of this life, dryness settled in her soul. She needed a divorce, to be independent again, just her and her son. Maya remembers the joy of starting her new life. At night she danced the hootchy-kootchy barefoot and nearly naked at the Bonne Nuit Dance Club for $300. Then she was promoted to singing Calypso at Purple Onion, and finally, because of her charisma and talent, invited to tour Europe with the musical, Porgy and Bess.
During a period of depression, Maya started writing to remind herself of the things she had to be grateful for. She began by writing lists: “I can hear. I can speak. I have a son. I have a mother. I have a brother. I can dance. I can sing. I can cook. I can read. I can write.” Writing forced her to craft pessimism into reflection, reflection into gratitude. She moved to New York with her son to continue writing. When she wrote, she felt blessed to be alive.
Maya remembers the 1960s like they were a lifetime ago. She travelled to Africa so Gus could finish high school in Cairo, Egypt. She married a South African activist who was fighting for an end to apartheid in South Africa. She took her son to Ghana for university, without her husband. She remembers meeting Malcolm X. She remembers meeting many other men, some of whom she loved and trusted.
She remembers 1968 clearly. How could she forget? Martin Luther King Jr asked her to organise a civil rights march on his behalf, but before she had time to make it happen, he was assassinated, shot dead on her 40th birthday. She remembers a year of great pain and sadness, but also of great productivity. It was the year that the world first realised the depth of her spirit and creative genius. She published the first of seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This book, which documented her life until the age of 17, was instantly beloved by readers worldwide. It felt original. It crafted the African American vernacular into rich and dazzling imagery. More important, though, was its universal message. It was heartbreaking yet funny, hopeful without being naïve, sad without a hint of self-pity, political but not ideological. As her dear friend and fellow writer James Bladwin said, “It liberates the reader into life.”
Maya remembers how her writing gave voice to her people’s experience. It also gave her the strength, for the next decade, to live by the creed of her own wisdom: “Nothing will work unless you do.” She produced plays, wrote poetry, directed films, composed music, married again, divorced again, fell in love many times, and accomplished more than many artists hope to in a lifetime. She remembers how her life changed dramatically in 1981 when she was offered a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest University. She agreed to teach for one year. She remembers at first thinking she was a writer who could teach. She was actually a teacher who could write. She remembers that this came with a decision to finally settle, to be a teacher for the rest of her life.
It is now 1.30pm. Dr Maya Angelou lifts herself from the hotel bed and begins to pack her belongings. Her notepad is heavy with memories from the 1930s to the present, 2014. She has been doing this, writing with honesty about her life, for many, many years. And still, it doesn’t get any easier. Despite all of her achievements—the accolades, the prizes, the fact that she read poetry at Bill Clinton’s inauguration—she still feels like Marguerite from Stamps who didn’t speak for five years. It is still terrifying to craft memory into writing, to transform the chaos of being alive into the wisdom of literature. And yet she persists, because, as she’s learnt after a lifetime, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.