Words by Gabriele Shaw
Last week, Dr Maya Angelou sat down with Oprah Winfrey to discuss the inspiration behind her new book: Me and Mom and Me. Touching upon things never spoken of before, Dr Angelou reveals the personality and the pain behind the legend. Serving as an essayist, entertainer, activist, poet, professor, film director and mother, seeing beyond her extensive achievements seems impossible. She has written more than 30 books, and she once had three titles— I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Heart of a Woman and Even the Stars Looked Lonesome —on The New York Times best-seller list simultaneously for six consecutive weeks. In 1993 she became the first poet since Robert Frost in 1961 to write and recite a poem at a presidential inaugural ceremony which she won a Grammy for Best Non-Musical Album for.
In a frank conversation, Dr Angelou, who Oprah famously calls her “mother-sister-friend” opens up about forgiveness and family. Dr. Angelou digs into one of the most personal, and up until now, secretive stories of her life: her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. She also reveals intimate truths from her childhood, including how despite abandoning her when she was three, her mother was nurturing and the source of her strength.
What was meant to be a light beginning to the interview was shocking. Dr Angelou revealed that before any interest in literature, she was a calypso dancer, telling Oprah that: “When I look at an old photo or a clip from my calypso days, I think it’s amazing what I have done…I don’t have to be modest about it. Modesty is a learned affectation…”
As expected, the interview took a darker turn when Dr Angelou revealed the abuse she received whilst trying to get an application to be a bus conductor. Following her mother’s stern instructions to “sit down in that office and make sure they give you that application”, a resilient Maya turned up every day waiting for the chance to be considered for a job – bear in mind not one black person had ever been employed by the company at that point. Maya recalls a particular scenario where the secretaries at the reception area were being especially rude: “I was reading Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy at the time. I did, and the secretaries laughed at me…They pushed out their lips and said some negative racial things, but I sat there.”
Her resilience resulted in her being the first black bus conductor in the US – a historic achievement. It is hard to imagine that only five years before that, at the age of 15 she was kidnapped by her boyfriend and beaten for a week on the premise of that she cheated on him. She denies ever doing so. Her mother, concerned about her whereabouts eventually found her:
“My mother walked in and saw me and fainted because I looked so—well, my teeth had gone through my lips.” Dr Angelou then went on to tell Oprah that her mother had arrived with the equivalent to henchmen, who proceeded to nearly beat the man to death. After being nursed back to health, her mother gave her a 9mm gun and advised a stricken Maya to shoot him.
Dr Angelou, now 85, is soft spoken, gentle and perhaps even bashful at times. It’s hard to imagine her actually handling a firearm with an intent to murder someone, yet she proceeded to tell Oprah: “My mother told me to call him and tell him to meet me on the corner, and I did that, and I had the pistol in my hand…..I also knew it was very unlikely that I would actually shoot”. Like a true storyteller, she declines to elaborate, clearly in a ploy to entice people into buying the book.
What is shocking about these stories is that fans of Maya Angelou would already assume to know everything about her, but what they forget is that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and its successors are only partially autobiographical. The most touching part of the interview is when she shares the moment everything changed for her - when she became “Maya Angelou” so to speak. Her mother for the first time had referred to her as a woman, inspiring her to better herself. Dr Angelou recounts how she thought to her herself: “Suppose she’s right. Suppose I really am going to be somebody. Maybe I should stop drinking and smoking and cursing,” and from that moment on, never did any of the later again. it obviously worked wonders.