what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget
how you made them feel.
— Maya Angelou —
Maya Angelou, a voice that inspired generations through powerful prose and poetry and the light of a fiery and shining soul, has died at the age of 86.
Like thousands of others, I discovered the power of Maya Angelou’s writing when I came across the book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” – seven words that I couldn’t get out of my head, and never left my heart. Why would someone put something as beautiful and free as a bird into a cage? And why would a caged bird choose to sing?
Three year old Maya and her brother Bailey Junior were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas after their parents divorce. Maya spent 10 years discovering what it was like to grow up in one of America’s poorest regions with all the prejudice and racial segregation of the Deep South (such as the white dentist who refused to treat Maya’s rotting teeth, even when reminded by her grandmother that she had lent him money during the Depression).
Maya was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St Louis, Missouri on 4 April 1928 and the name Maya originated from her brother’s way of saying “My-a sister”.
The Silent Voice
At the age of 7, when visiting her mother in St Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she told her family what had happened, the man was arrested, tried and released, but was murdered shortly afterwards. For the next five years, Maya Angelou didn’t speak:
“When I heard about his murder, I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak.
“After a while, I no longer knew why I didn’t speak, I simply didn’t speak.”
During her silence, she read incessantly and was eventually persuaded to speak again by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, “the aristocrat of Black Stamps” who encouraged her reading, and recognising her love of poetry told her that to be fully experienced, poetry had to be read aloud. “You will never love poetry until you actually feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips.”
Maya Angelou went on to have an extraordinary career which she writes about in her books, including becoming San Francisco’s first female cable car conductor at 15, the experience of being a young mother at 16, time as a dancer, waitress, prostitute, actor and singer, travelling around Europe and Africa with the Opera Porgy and Bess, her involvement with the civil rights movement, working with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and experiencing the trauma of both their assassinations – King was killed on her birthday.
She writes of falling in love with South African civil rights activist Vusuma Make and moving to Cairo with him, practicing as a journalist in Egypt and later in Ghana during the time of decolonisation, her son’s car accident and the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to start writing “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”.
Other autobiographical books that followed the Caged Bird include
“Gather Together in My Name “(1974),
“Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1976),
“The Heart of a Woman” (1981),
“All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986),
“A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002), and
“Mom & Me & Mom” (2013, at the age of 85).
Maya Angelou used the same “writing ritual” for many years and described her writing process as regimented.
The Ritual involved getting up at five in the morning and booking into a hotel room where the staff have been instructed to remove all pictures from the walls. She has a bottle of sherry, a deck of playing cards, a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and the Bible, and she writes on legal pads.
She places herself back in the time she is writing about, even when traumatic and plays solitaire she says to reach a place of enchantment and access her memories more effectively. “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!”. It is not the process which she finds cathartic but rather the relief that she finds in “telling the truth”.
“I try to get there around seven, and work until around two in the afternoon … Maybe after dinner I’ll read to [my husband, Paul du Feu] what I have written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anybody but my editor.”
Angelou has credited African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar along with Shakespeare for inspiring her “writing ambition” and the title of her first book comes from Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.”
the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised
and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars
and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends
from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward
to Heaven he flings –
I know why
the caged bird sings.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar —