Remembering Maya Angelou
Her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – about the pain and endurance of growing up as a black girl in the racist American South – smashed the myth of a lack of broad interest in black female autobiography.
The book would inspire a generation of black feminist authors like Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, and Pulitzer-winning novelist, Alice Walker.
Angelou was herself inspired by black writers like Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as reading the classics: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. She later befriended James Baldwin who encouraged her to tell her own stories.
In her subsequent six autobiographies, Angelou wrote about her time as a single mother, streetcar conductor, “madam” of prostitutes, calypso dancer, Broadway actress, food chef and her three marriages to Tosh Angelos, a sailor of Greek descent; a South African Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make, with whom she moved to Cairo where she worked as a journalist; and to Paul du Feu, a writer and cartoonist. She was also involved in the civil rights struggle working with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. She published 35 books and 10 volumes of poetry and starred in the 1977 television epic on slavery, Roots. Her lyrical poems such as “Still I Rise” throbbed with jazzy rhythms that told of the tragedies and triumphs of the black struggle:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
She won a Grammy for best spoken word album three times and was nominated for a Tony acting award and a Pulitzer poetry prize. When she delivered a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, at fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993, she became only the third poet to have been granted this honour. In her final years, Maya was a Professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Angelou identified deeply with Africa and wore African clothes until her dying days. One of the most fascinating of her autobiographies described her three-year sojourn in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana between 1962 and 1965. The book, titled All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, is a remarkable memoir that tells of Angelou’s time working as an administrator at the University of Ghana and later as a journalist.
She writes about the euphoria of African Americans going to a newly liberated Africa: “We were Black Americans in West Africa, where for the first time in our lives, the colour of our skin was accepted as correct and normal.” She describes the tight-knit and often naive African-American community of educated professionals – the “Revolutionist Returnees” – in Accra, escaping the racism in America, and heeding Nkrumah’s call to return to their ancestral home.
Crushingly, the exiles fail to be accepted by a new African elite eager to enjoy the fruits of a recently won freedom. The longing of the African-Americans for some of the comforts of their racist homeland thus returns, in conflicting emotions of nostalgia and revulsion.
The black exiles want so badly to be accepted by their hosts, dressing in African clothes, donning African hair-styles, and learning African languages. As Angelou poignantly notes, they had “left one familiar place of painful memory for another strange place with none.” But Maya also enjoys warm friendships, particularly with Efua Sutherland, a pioneering Ghanaian playwright and director of traditional street theatre, who comforted Angelou as her son lay injured in hospital following a car accident. She eventually befriends a journalist, T.D. Bafoo, who invites her to his home, and offers her work with the Ghanaian Times.
Angelou describes with elegance the faces, gestures and voices of her American relatives that she recognises in the Ghanaians she encounters. She writes about market women roasting plantains; eats ground nut stew, pepper soup, plantains and kenke; visits a colourful durbar; breaks down while visiting a slave castle in the Cape Coast; dances to the live beats of Nigerian musician Bobby Benson’s melodious High life; has an affair with a polygamous Malian businessman; reminisces about Nkrumah’s “African Personality”; hears pastors delivering sermons resembling those of black Baptist preachers in the American South; and describes how the mood of the country darkened following an assassination attempt on Nkrumah’s life which fuelled a mistrust of the African-American community and other foreigners, as Ghana’s Osagyefo (Redeemer) tragically drifted towards autocracy. Angelou also describes the death of the towering African-American intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois – who had been invited to live in Accra by Nkrumah and granted Ghanaian citizenship – on the same night as Martin Luther King’s famous “March on Washington” in August 1963.
She further writes about a memorable visit to Accra by the charismatic Malcolm X, who met Nkrumah and delivered a rousing speech at the University of Ghana, while on a continental tour to drum up support with African governments for the African-American cause at the United Nations (UN). Having recently broken away from the Nation of Islam, Angelou describes how Malcolm X encounters one of the group’s most famous adherents and heavyweight boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, in Accra; who refuses to acknowledge the visibly shattered prodigal preacher.
Maya paints one of the most intimate and complex portraits of Malcolm X that humanises the caricature of the fiery radical, and shows him to be a canny, intelligent, and increasingly broad-minded thinker who had embraced the vision of a common humanity following his life-changing Hajj to Mecca. A sorrowful Angelou left Ghana in 1965 with a great sense of nostalgia: “I knew my people had never completely left Africa. We had sung it in our blues, shouted it in our gospel and danced the continent in our breakdowns.”
Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in February 2011. Obama – noting that his mother had named his own sister, “Maya” after Angelou – offered an eloquent elegy after her death, describing Angelou as “one of the brightest lights of our time – a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”
Maya’s last poem was a memorable tribute to Nelson Mandela – whom she had met in Cairo in 1962 – titled “His Day is Done”. It was written after Mandela’s death in December 1993 (and five months before her own death). As Angelou recited:
Your man of strength, Gideon, emerging triumphant…
..we watched as the hope of Africa sprang through the prison’s doors.
His stupendous heart intact, his gargantum will hale and hearty…
No sun outlasts its sunset, but it will rise again and bring the dawn.
Yes, Mandela’s day is done, yet we, his inheritors, will open the gates wider for
•Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa.
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