This article was originally published Saturday, October 11, 2003.
With her regal presence and deep voice that makes every sentence, however mundane, seem like an incantation, Maya Angelou is the queen of the downtrodden.
From high up in Toronto's SkyDome, engulfed in a sea of the sisterhood (with the occasional supportive male), I watched her speaking at a recent Unique Lives and Experiences lecture. Her message was simple and saccharine. God put a rainbow in the clouds to give us hope and each of us has a rainbow within.
Her remarks were not surprising. Courage is her brand.
Angelou spoke extemporaneously for more than an hour about her life of legendary triumph over adversity. Born Marguerite Johnson 75 years ago, she was raped at 7 by a boyfriend of her mother, with whom she lived briefly after her parents separated. She told her older brother, Bailey, what happened. When the man was arrested, released and then beaten to death, she thought that her voice was to blame. She refused to speak for almost seven years. Her life did not get any easier. At 16, she had a son out of wedlock and in the years that followed, she struggled to make ends meet by working in shops and clubs and resorting to prostitution.
She never gave up and always reinvented herself. She has been a singer, a composer, a dancer in Porgy and Bess, an actor in the Obie Award-winning play, The Blacks, and in such films as Calypso Heat Wave and How to Make an American Quilt, a civil-rights activist, a journalist, a writer for television and Hollywood, and a director, in 1998, of Down in the Delta. But her most successful career move came in 1970 when she published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir of her traumatic childhood that stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for two years. Since then, she has become an international icon as earth mother to the masses. She has written six autobiographies in all, the latest (in 2002) and reportedly the last being A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
The shock that night was the realization that so many women feel like victims, in need of an Angelou fix of hope. "I feel so much better," I heard more than one woman say as we exited the stadium.
The first question I ask Angelou the next day is why she thinks women are so needy.
"Well," she drawls in her rich molasses voice on the phone from her hotel room. "Usually we see people and think that what they look like is who they are. They may look rich in a rich country where money is adored, or white in a white country, but behind that there can be so many fathers who ignored them, so many teachers who underestimated them -- I'm talking about women in particular -- so many sales people who make you feel silly and out of place.
"In the case of many white women," she continues, "they have been told either implicitly or explicitly that they are not really important. [The cultural message is] I can run my companies without you. I can send my planes in the air, my trains across the rails without you. I need you in the kitchen."
Women must have an innate inferiority complex, I suggest. "Yes, they do," she responds. "It shows itself on the surface as well as in the interior."
Has feminism failed women then? "It hasn't done nearly enough," she says. "The problem is historical. It has been going on for so long, and you can't expect a movement in 20 or 30 years to undo thousands of years of brainwashing."
But aren't women partly to blame for that? There are just as many contra-feminists as there are feminists. "Well, sometimes it's impossible if you're already burdened down to let your burden down," she explains in a low rumble. "If you've been impacted with all this erroneous information and someone says to you, 'Come, you can let your burden down,' maybe people would say, 'This isn't a burden. This is me.' "