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.' "
Angelou sounds as rumpled as a pair of cozy pajamas. The slow delivery of her wisdom, and the confidence of it, makes you feel as though you're on the line with Dial-an-Oracle. "Let me tell you this," she soothes as she begins a parable to explain her feelings about feminism. "A New Yorker who is a friend of mine came to Los Angeles, and she was just visiting. In L.A., the law in the [traffic] intersections is that when a pedestrian puts his or her foot down, the oncoming cars must stop. So my friend tried to cross the street. She put her foot down, but she stepped back up on the curb. She was so scared! This is so dangerous, she thought. She had to walk three long Los Angeles blocks so she could cross where there was a light.
"Well, that's the same with some women," Angelou says. "You say to them, 'You really can stop thinking that you can't do things' and they look at you like you're crazy. They think, if I start to act like I'm somebody, someone will bash me over the head. My husband will leave me. My children will turn against me. My church will disown me."
But Angelou is not advocating that women button their insecurities into business suits and head out into the world. Achievement is not the answer as much as acceptance, a shrewd mass-market approach when you consider that many women don't know what they want. Embracing the inner goddess is an easy sell. "Do you realize that being a woman, you don't have to carry that burden of having to be lord of the manor; know everything; know how to do everything?" she says forcefully.
"You can be a human being in search of knowledge."
One year, she tells me, at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she is a professor of American Studies, a male student came up to her and said, "Ms. Angelou, you know you want to be a man."
"I said 'What? Are you kidding?' And then I understood what he was thinking. He was white. He was male. He rules the world. And he was thinking that everyone would like to be a white male. Well, no! I'm glad to have the charge to change. If you're a white male and you started talking about kindness and generosity and fair play -- I don't mean obvious fair play, I mean internal fair play -- if you started talking about spiritualism, the soul, many of your colleagues would say, 'What the hell is the matter with you?' "
Angelou lets out a raucous laugh that lasts for about 20 seconds. The spiritual impoverishment of men is why she believes she appeals to both sexes. "Men need to be buoyed up, too," she purrs. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have so many golf courses! It's true," she continues after a pause for another laugh. "All you have to do is just wait until Saturday or Wednesday and see them. Do you really believe it's just about middle-aged men hitting a little ball? It's really about a chance for men to get together and either implicitly or explicitly say, 'You're fine. So you beat your wife, so what? You're fine,' " she says pulling that last sentence out, slowly, like a sheet over a sleeping child. " 'So you lie and cheat in your company, so what? You're fine. Make sure you some back next Saturday so you can hear the same thing.' "
This is vintage Angelou: balm and pith. She has found a clear voice in the culture as an Oprah-endorsed secular priestess who has transformed her experience as a black impoverished woman into an all-inclusive narrative of healing. It's little wonder that in 1993 she was invited to read one of her poems, On the Pulse of Morning, during the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
If Angelou's message is about love, which she holds out as the answer to all our problems and struggles, then why has it failed her in her life? She has been married twice, briefly: The first time to a man of Greek descent, whose surname she used to launch her career as a singer, dancer and activist, and a second time to a South African freedom fighter. In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, which chronicles her involvement in the civil-rights movement in the mid-sixties, she describes a love affair with an imperious African prince that went awry. "If I wanted chicken, he said he wanted lamb, and I quickly agreed," she writes. It seems surprising that someone so strong and independent would allow herself to be subservient. How does she explain her mistakes in love?
"If you have enough courage to admit when love comes to you and is shared with someone else, then you need the courage to admit when it goes, or when it is not honoured."
It's easy to see why Angelou was asked to write messages in Hallmark cards.
Asked about the popularization of her poetry, she has a quick answer to any suggestion of criticism. "A friend of mine responded negatively when I told him that I was going to write greeting cards for Hallmark. He said, 'Oh, I hope not. You are the people's poet in this country and you don't want to trivialize that.' But I thought about that. 'What am I doing? What am I talking about?' I asked myself. If I can say something on a card that can reach somebody's heart and mind, let me try. And I found that that is almost the most difficult writing that I have done. It might take me three pages of prose to write an epigram that is two or three sentences."
When she writes, Angelou takes the same hotel room near her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. She goes there at 6 in the morning and leaves at the end of the day for three- or four-week stretches. At her home, there are too many distractions, she says. She takes the pictures from the hotel-room walls and puts them under the bed. At a desk, she writes on long, yellow pads. At 10 in the morning, she fortifies herself with a few shots of good sherry. "I want to have the courage to see the truth," she tells me. "And the courage to say it and the art to say it so that I don't seem to be preaching."