The Soul of a Woman: Dr. Maya Angelou

Everyday as the sun rises over North Carolina, the house that is Maya Angelou’s stirs with the new day. The 6-foot-tall wordsmith, who says she delights in turning sow ears into silk purses, awakens under her maker’s watchful eye. She prays to Him. And after other absolutions, the 72-year-old is good to herself.  “I spend about 10 to 12 minutes on the recumbent bicycle,” she says, explaining her solution to having doctors tell her they want to replace her “bad knees.”  Then, she speaks with Mrs. Thomas, the woman who keeps her house in order, to find out her obligations for the day.

Unlike in her public life, most days for Angelou start without fanfare, without glamour, the way they do for most everyone else. But in her mind – the mind of a woman many hail as one of the most powerful writers in contemporary American literature – the everyday is transformed into poetry.  For more than four decades Angelou has dared millions to be formidable, educated and enthusiastic about life and its sometimes tumultuous curves. Her familiar, mellifluous, baritone voice has moved many to look   deeper inside themselves to find happiness. It’s a joy Angelou says can be discovered only by looking back at the road already traveled. “No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place,” she says.  Like many African Americans searching for answers about their origins, Angelou searched for and found her connection to Africa. The noted author chronicled five years of her storied life in poems and the chapters of her six-book autobiography series, while loving and learning the ways of the Motherland.  Angelou has experienced Africa’s beauty and witnessed her pain. As soaring unemployment and other societal ills plague the continent, Angelou believes the African-American business community can help turn the tide. But, she warns, we’ve got to move quicker and with good intentions. “Too many of the business people going to South Africa, for instance, are not Black people,” Angelou says. “And by the time we get over there, the cream will have been already lifted. If we go into South Africa, East Africa, and West Africa with the heart to do good and end up doing well, many would be served – our ancestors and the children yet to come.”

African Americans with vision, courage, and insight can be leaders in helping African nations improve their economic position in the world, says Angelou. She reminds African Americans to match their good intentions with preparedness. She calls on Black people to be knowledgeable enough to see the opportunities coming – opportunities that extend beyond financial gains.  Angelou stresses that for Black people Africa is more than a distant land, some thousands of miles away. It is the birthplace of the African American. And not only should African Americans learn about the Motherland’s rich and textured history, we must help Africans learn about our beginnings. To her dismay, African-American history is not taught in African schools. MTV and Hollywood now shape the African’s view of his distant cousins in the United States. “I wonder why very few Africans come to study me,” Angelou said. “Me is W.E.B. DuBois … James Baldwin. If I were from Mars, I would want to study Black Americans. We are fascinating. I would want to know how we survived the shackles of slavery, the rapes, the robbery of culture. And still, we go on.” Angelou adds that changing perception will not be an easy task. Even in this country now, the story of the African’s place in U.S. history has just begun to be told in American schools. And even so, it is still uncommon knowledge that she – who humbly dismisses her role in American history – is a historian whose writings reveal long ignored turning points in the African-American story. She left an indelible impression after sharing her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the 1993 inaugural of President Clinton. Today she teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she is a Reynolds Professor of American Studies. But it took a long time to rise to that coveted position.  Hers is a life that has taken many turns. Born Marguerite Johnson, April 4, 1928, Angelou was shuttled between her birthplace in St. Louis, where her mother lived for a while, and Stamps, Ark., the home of her benevolent grandmother. In 1940, she and her brother Bailey also lived, for a time, with their mother in San Francisco. At the age of 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend – a tale she eloquently tells in her first autobiography and best seller, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The violation scarred her and she didn’t speak for five years. At 17 she gave birth to her only child, a son she named Guy. Since his birth, she’s been married twice and has been a Creole cook, madam, tap dancer, singer, chauffeur, civil rights activist, writer, actor, director, and world traveler, living in Europe and Africa.  These days, however, Angelou likes to be on American soil. And while she says she doesn’t like to be out of the United States for more than a month at a time, she does recommend others make the trip.  “I think that is something you should do in your youth,” Angelou   says. “I’ve done that already. Besides, this is my home – where the blood of my ancestors live.”

Encouraging interest in Africa will take a group effort, Angelou says. “Americans of all shades will have to make the journey across the Atlantic to Africa and make it their home – at least for a little while.  And when our children are educated with African-born children we can then demand Black American history, in its true and complete form, be taught there. Moreover, African-American children will learn the story of Africa and how she came to be what she is today. Without our knowledge of their past and their knowledge of ours, we are divided.” “The not knowing dooms them and us to an extent,” Angelou says. “Because our histories are an intertwined vine.”  Angelou acknowledges that for the many Africans who fail to see their connection with African Americans, there are Black Americans blind to their ties with the Motherland. But look at it in the simplest of terms, Angelou proposes, and the need for one another becomes clear, especially when it comes to corruptions of justice.  “You should be able to call your people and say I’ve been mistreated, and I need your help,” Angelou says. “You see, it’s all about helping each other – being there for one another.”

Toni Ford is the education writer for a major New Jersey newspaper.

Image courtesy of Maya

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