Thursday, May 29, 2014

Against all Odds: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an accidental memoirist, though she would eventually write six volumes about her life. She was also well known for her poetry, singing, acting, playwriting—the list goes on and on. I once heard Dr. Maya Angelou speak at Calvin College, at the Festival of Faith and Writing. She held us spellbound—in a basketball fieldhouse where we sat uncomfortably on bleachers without any back support—yes, she had that affect, to transport us out of our current misery and to another place. She was an encourager.

Her personal story encompasses many lives. She was a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, friend of James Baldwin, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and a Civil Rights activist. She was a chronicler of her time.

She stood up. For women, for her race, for all people. ’Cause that’s how it is.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings her first volume published in 1969 was a sensation, not because of the prose, but because her editor didn’t think it would sell. The autobiography of a black woman. This from the NY Times obit: The book — its title is a line from “Sympathy,” by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar — became a best seller, confounding the stereotype, pervasive in the publishing world, that black women’s lives were rarely worthy of autobiography.”

Maybe that was her greatest achievement. Confounding others.

Yet, according the NY Times, she never set out to why memoir.
Near the end of “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” Ms. Angelou recalls her response when Robert Loomis, who would become her longtime editor at Random House, first asked her to write an autobiography.
Still planning to be a playwright and poet, she demurred. Cannily, Mr. Loomis called her again.
“You may be right not to attempt autobiography, because it is nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature,” he said. “Almost impossible.”
Ms. Angelou replied, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
What an example of courage. Maya Angelou was a woman who faced the blank page, it was white, but she painted it all the colors of the rainbow with her words. Thanks.

Maya Angelou in 1969, the year of her landmark memoir. Credit Chester Higgins, Jr.

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