A Rogueish Queen

February 18, 2010

On a cold winter’s morning in Washington, crowds fill the mall to witness the inauguration of a young President.
The first Democrat to be elected for 16 years, he is keen to stake out what it means to be an American in the closing decade of the 20th century.
The Presidential party has wound its way from Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, whose unequalled position as founding father of the nation and great political thinker sits uneasily beside his role as slave owner, and indeed father of slave children.
In looks the new President cultivates the style of another incumbent of the White House, John F Kennedy. Like President Kennedy he has asked a poet to capture the measure of his dream. The new President, William Jefferson Clinton, chooses someone who has followed much of his own journey. From the scorching, poor, fields of Arkansas, from small towns with coloured drinking fountains and lunch counters.
Born in the tiny town of Stamps, only 25 miles from Clinton’s birthplace, Maya Angelou stands on that morning in January 1993 with the Capitol rotunda behind her while the world watches and listens. Possibly the most respected black woman in America, she delivers her poem, On The Cusp Of Morning.
Back at her comfortable weatherboard home in North Carolina, more than a decade later, Maya is recovering after addressing the Democrat National Convention in Boston – and preparing to host a dinner the following week in aid of a Democrat candidate for the Senate.
Now well into her seventies, she’s ready to reflect on the changed America in those years between – the candidacies of Clinton and John Kerry.
“I could sit on the Champs Elysses and say `Um-hm-mm, there goes an American. In Venice, London, anywhere in the world. That was the most notable thing about Americans before 9/11. For good or bad, Americans would always be ready to hold their heads up and say, `Yes, I can.’”
A Presidential poet, the people’s champion, a former singer, dancer, editor of an African newspaper, aide to Martin Luther King and – briefly – a prostitute, Maya has seen almost everything. Impeccably well mannered and elegant, she is also wickedly wry and entertaining. She is, as one friend fittingly describes her, a roguish queen.
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom,” she says in a poem echoing the title of the first, most famous, autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
Maya sits at the table in her dining room every day beneath a formidable row of photographs. Her mother, Vivian Baxter, gambler, hustler, and always the glamorous but slightly unreachable heroine of Maya’s books, looks down.
Further back, one of her great ancestors, a slave woman, is sketched out with soft brown eyes. And then there is the portrait of her grandmother, the woman who raised Maya when she was still Marguerite Johnson in the back room of a small general store during America’s worst years of economic depression and racial segregation.
Talking about her grandmother brings Maya to life. And she recalls what she calls “those terrible years.”
The years after she was raped as an eight-year-old by her mother’s lover, then struck dumb by the consequences (the man was found murdered and for years Maya believed it was her speaking out that had led to his death).
“My grandmother used to say, `Sister, Momma don’t care what those people say about you. They say you must be an idiot but Momma don’t care. Momma knows when you and the Lord get ready you gonna be a teacher, and you gonna teach all over this big wide world.’”
Maya smiles. “And I thought – God is this woman ignorant!”
A smile of course, because through the immense popularity of her books, Maya appears to have reinvented herself as a fragile bridge of human understanding between white and black across the often fraught American divide.
The little girl who was once turned away from a white dentist because he would rather stick his hand “in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s,” is now famous and feted by the white world.
She has achieved hybrid status, accepted as an honorary white person.
Her ex-husband, Paul De Feu, was also formerly married to Germaine Greer, and another gave her Angelou, her Greek surname. Has she transcended her race? She wrinkles her nose at the thought. “I’m black. It’s wonderful to be a cross over, but I haven’t crossed over.” To her acceptance by white America, she adds a note of caution.
“You say you have no racial prejudice,” she says. “But at dinner your children see that everyone looks like you. At the parties you give, everyone looks like you.”
But for the “ignorant” blacks in her own community who have derided her as an `Uncle Tom’ and a sell-out, she is more scathing. “Bullcorn!” she says. “I won’t have it. I refuse to get out of one bag of tricks and into another.”
Maya speaks precisely, like the poet she is, and chooses every word with care. She hates simplicity when applied to other people as much as to herself.
“Of course he’s complicated,” she says of George Bush. Scornful of the notion that Bush is no more than a fool, she points to similar comments made about previous Presidents, most notably Gerald Ford.
Finding herself seated next to Ford at a National Book Association lunch, Maya was astonished when he turned to her and said how much her books had meant to him.
“He told me he had a stepfather, and my teenage years reminded him a lot of his.”
Where dance and the arts had proved her salvation, Ford told her his had been sport.
“My jaw hit the floor,” she remembers. “This was the man they said couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”
But while she’s happy to recognise complexity and ambiguity, and even the notion that Bush may believe in his own relationship with God, Maya is in no way reconciled to the turn America has taken since September 11.
“Fear stymies. It immobilises. You can’t think if you’re afraid.”
She says she’s “torn up” about events in Iraq, holds out some hope for the political future of her old friend Hillary Clinton, but despairs over the dearth of leadership in the black community.
“It’s a vacuum. Nobody has exploded onto the national scene. Our community has been so seriously injured by drugs.”
Maya still counts old allies like Martin Luther King’s widow as friends and wields considerable influence amongst younger black members of congress. “I’m so glad Oprah’s there,” she says, talking about the other most famous black woman in America. “She’s acted almost as a mass psychologist since 9/11, allowing people to vent their anger and their fear.”
Since their first meeting many years ago, when Oprah Winfrey was still a young reporter, the two women have forged an almost mother-daughter bond. The parallels between their lives are obvious. Both are self-made black women who have overcome almost unimaginable abuse and racism, and attained great success through their ability to communicate to a mass audience, albeit in different ways.
A not entirely hostile American of fairly liberal views asks: “What have either Maya Angelou or Oprah Winfrey achieved? What do they do beyond being themselves?”
Charged with this Maya says: “I want to be a great human being. I want to be funny and kind and generous and loving and tough. And I want to be all of that, all of the time.”
Having left home at 17, a single mother with a young son, Maya returned to her mother’s house only by invitation. After one lunch together Maya was stopped in her tracks when her mother said to her: “Baby, I think you may be the greatest woman I’ve ever met. You’re very kind and you’re very intelligent. So far it’s only been Eleanor Roosevelt and my mother. But I think you may be in that category.”
Suppose she’s right, Maya wondered. Maybe I could become somebody. And it’s true that for Maya Angelou, the woman is still the story.
Having come to a halt after five volumes of autobiography, Maya has just put the finishing touches to a new memoir/cookbook.
She refuses to say that she’s a better person for what she’s been through, for fear that it gives justification to child abusers everywhere.
It is hard to see the little girl called Marguerite Johnson that Maya Angelou once was, but she says being raped is always with her.
“There isn’t a day that’s passed that I haven’t thought about it. Not one day.”
But she fiercely protects her right to continue to be herself, and she is, she claims, still a work in progress.
“It’s not that events that happened to me didn’t change me, but I refuse to be reduced.”

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