Maya Angelou: A Hymn to Human Endurance
Remembering a life of relentless creativity.
When Maya Angelou was 16 she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. By the time she was 40 she had also been, in no particular order, a cook, a waitress, a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, and a Calypso singer (her one album is entitled “Miss Calypso.”) It wasn’t until 1970, when she was 41, that she became an author: her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, told the story of her life up to the age of 17. That remarkable life story ended today at the age of 86.
In her last years Angelou’s work became associated with a certain easy, commercial sentimentality—she loaned her name to a line of Hallmark cards, for example—but there was nothing easy about her beginnings. She was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was 3. When she was 7 her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She testified against him in court, but before he could be sentenced he was found beaten to death in an alley. Angelou’s response to the trauma was to become virtually mute – she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak in public for the next 5 years. She often cited this silent period as a time when she became intimately aware of the written word.
Angelou eventually regained her voice, but her life remained chaotic. She became a mother at 17, immediately after graduating high school. She bounced from city to city, job to job and spouse to spouse (she picked up the name Angelou from one of her husbands; “Maya” was her brother’s nickname for her). She spent years living in Egypt and then in Ghana. By the time she was 40 her life story and her distinctive, charismatic way with words had her friends—among them James Baldwin—begging her to write it all down. She finally did.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Angelou describes herself as “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” Although generations of high school students have been assigned it, the book’s unsparing account of black life in the South during the Depression, and of her sexual abuse, is not easy reading. It is Angelou’s tough, funny, lyrical voice that transforms her story from a litany of isolation and suffering into a hymn of glorious human endurance. That extraordinary voice—dense, idiosyncratic, hilarious, alive—brought novelistic techniques to the task of telling a life story, and its influence on later generations of memoirists, from Maxine Hong Kingston to Elizabeth Gilbert, is incalculable. (Angelou also mixed fact and fiction, unapologetically, long before James Frey.) The themes she expounded in Caged Bird, of suffering and self-reliance, would be braided through the rest of her long life’s work. “All my work, my life, everything is about survival,” Angelou said. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’ In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.”