This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
Dr. Maya Angelou’s life could not be contained by a single autobiography, even the critically acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
So the memoirist, who died on May 28 at age 86, wrote six.
Angelou’s multi-volume “song of herself”—to play off Whitman’s famous poem—made an audacious claim: that she, as a Black woman reared in the segregated South, was fully human and a worthy historical subject who needed no outside narrator to tell or validate her story.
By the time I reached high school, I was intrigued with Angelou, partly because she was a professor at Wake Forest University, a short drive from my Greensboro, North Carolina, home. After hearing about Angelou sightings around my city, my sister and I always hoped for a brief glimpse of her doing mundane things like grocery shopping or getting her car oil changed.
Her legend preceded her, and though I didn’t know it yet, her renown was not merely about her memoirs, her verse, or her inimitable presence. Angelou had the rare talent of placing herself where history was bound to happen. She was featured in a European tour of the landmark musical Porgy and Bess and had a small cameo in the 1977 Roots mini-series. She worked briefly as an organizer and key fundraiser for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was prepped to collaborate with Malcolm X at the time of his death.
A calypso singer, a foremother of spoken-word poetry, a dancer, a jobless nomad who hustled her way into a Creole cooking job and an editing post in Cairo, a filmmaker, and the first female streetcar operator in San Francisco, the girl born Marguerite Johnson mastered the art of self-reinvention and became Maya Angelou, Black cosmopolitan.
Then I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in Mrs. Janis Baines’ high school English class. For me, Angelou’s writing laid bare what it was to be a Southern Black girl. I, too, had forgotten my rehearsed Easter speeches in church, lingered to hear kinfolks’ kitchen talk, and greased my legs with Vaseline.
Before her poem “Phenomenal Woman” became an anthem for Black women, Angelou had written love songs for Black girls who never saw themselves reflected in anything admirable, dainty, or remotely pretty. On the very first page of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she fantasized of a moment when she would be transformed into something other than the plain Black girl wearing a hand-me-down dress.
I was going to look like one of those sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, [the dress] looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say “Marguerite [sometimes it was ‘dear Marguerite’], forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were.” And I would answer generously, “No you couldn’t have known. Of course I forgive you.”
She wouldn’t be a “too-big Negro girl with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.”
This frankness—and Angelou’s willingness to talk straightforwardly about sex and sexual abuse—earned her equal amounts of praise and disapproval. Her discussions of her childhood rape by her mother’s boyfriend and the emotionless sexual encounter that led to her becoming a teen mother made I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings one of the most banned books in the United States.
And still she wrote.
Angelou’s writing refused to apologize for not being “respectable.” She wrote candidly about her stint as a brothel manager and a sometimes prostitute in a particularly difficult time of her life. Again and again, she chronicled the struggles of motherhood, following her own loaded relationship with the mother who sent her away to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas; her separation from her son, Guy, as she made a living as a touring actress and dancer; and the labors of women on welfare and anonymous working mothers like the one in “Woman Work”:
I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to week
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.
This poem sags with fatigue, but Angelou pursued joy aggressively. And as she is being memorialized
across the world, I see one picture repeatedly: a black-and-white image of her dancing with (also recently deceased) poet Amiri Baraka at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. Angelou’s face bears the pleasurable grimace of a dancer hard at work (or werk, in today’s lingo) and Baraka is bowed down to the rhythm, holding Angelou’s hand in his left hand and his right fingers frozen in an eternal snap. I imagine that there will be a second round of shimmying somewhere in the literary heavens.