She bought her clothes for their colors in secondhand shops — "beautiful reds and oranges, and greens and pinks, and teals and turquoise" — and wore them in happy mismatch. She danced feathers and a few sequins to Alvin Ailey's leopard print G-string — shaking everything she had. She spoke French, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Fanti and easily (mesmerizingly) recited John Donne, William Shakespeare, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Allan Poe, Langston Hughes, even Publius Terentius Afer, an African slave born nearly 200 years before Christ.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
She worked the Melrose Record Shop selling John Lee Hooker and Charlie Parker; sang her heart out at the Purple Onion; toured Europe as the premier dancer in "Porgy and Bess"; lived in a houseboat commune with "an icthyologist, a musician, a wife, and an inventor"; and once described her life, to a rapt Merv Griffin, as one in which she'd been "obliged to be clever, to dance quickly, to edge-walk."
She brought poetic intimacy to the political; compassion to the margins; fervor to the campaigns of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Barack Obama; and smothered chicken, smoked pork chops and spoon bread to tables wrapped by friends.
She was raped as a child by her mother's boyfriend, impregnated at 16 by an acquaintance, married to a Greek who did not cherish her well, consoled by a bartender when she asked if any man would have her again. And yet: love — bold, outrageous, graceful, ecstatic — was her sure stance, the conclusion she had drawn, the lesson she passed on.
Her famous name — Maya Angelou — came to her in pieces, an adaptation of her given and married name, for she'd been born Marguerite Annie Johnson. Her style was 6-feet proud, up until her death on May 28 at age 86. She had advice for us:
"Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud."
"Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity."
She had "an attitude of gratitude." She loved that son of hers, and oh, that woman: She could laugh.
Writer. Actor. Singer. Dancer. Activist. Cook. Historian. Educator. First African-American female cable car conductor. U.S. poet laureate. Grammy Award winner. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. Angelou has been given many titles. But in terms of pure literature, we will perhaps remember best the ways she electrified sound. How she pointed to a place beyond her shoulder, beyond the shimmer of sky, as she read:
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's miraculously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
And so, naturally
There I go rising.
How, as a Terry Gross guest on National Public Radio in 1986, she demonstrated long-meter hymns, laying out a line — As long as I live in troubled times — and then answering harmonically.
She took a breath. We didn't.
How she stood at the presidential podium on Jan. 20, 1993, Bill Clinton sitting behind her and the world sitting before her, and decreed, on behalf of the earth itself:
Here, on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
And into your brother's face,
And say simply
With hope —
"There is no human sound which is unbeautiful to me," she said, but that's because she always heard the music first. Because she, despite every last hurting and unjust thing, believed in the possibility of song.
Angelou's groundbreaking first of what would become several autobiographies, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1969), had been encouraged by James Baldwin and Angelou's editor, Robert Loomis. Poet Dunbar is right there in the title (the line having been lifted from Dunbar's 1899 poem "Sympathy"), but so, of course, is the idea of the melodic — not just the soul's capacity for song, but the undefeatable urge.
Angelou's "Caged Bird" is a coming-of-age narrative. She emerges as every variety of herself — an abandoned daughter, a cared-for granddaughter, a brother-loving sister, a steady observer of her grandmother's store in Stamps, Ark., a survivor of innocence ruptured. The book is revelatory in its themes of identity, racism, schisms, violence and redemption. It is, I think, at its best when capturing sound.
With the ear of an enchanted child, Angelou reports on the "troubadours" and their "ceaseless crawlings through the South (who) leaned across its benches and sang their sad songs of The Brazos while they played juice harps and cigar-box guitars." She writes of the grandmother who would "creak down to her knees and chant in a sleep-filled voice." She conjures the store and its many moods: "The sound of the empty cotton sacks dragging over the floor and the murmurs of waking people were sliced by the cash register as we rang up the five-cent sales." Later: "I alone could hear the slow pulse of its job half done."
And when tragedy strikes, when Angelou is returned to her mother and raped as an 8-year-old child, memory is "like a bad connection on an overseas telephone call." There will be a trial. The rapist, convicted, will be murdered. Angelou, who had used her own words to accuse the man who had assaulted her, will conclude that the rapist's death is her fault. Subsequently, and for many years, she will commit herself to a "perfect personal silence," with the exception of conversations conducted with her brother, Bailey. The practice of such silence would require Angelou to "attach" herself "leechlike to sound."
I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me.
Later in life, after the spell of near-silence had been broken, Angelou would retain her gift both for deeply intentional listening and for the snatch and reinvention of syllables, accents, pause.
Angelou's poems, such as those collected in the Pulitzer-nominated "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie" (1971), were blues-inflected and rhyme-inclined: "You torture my love with mournful cries, / sweet hello's and sad goodbyes."
Her advice, collected in books such as "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now" (1993), was at its most judicious when it arrived after a considered hearkening: "I would like to see us go calling on the good example and upon virtue itself with the purpose of inviting them back into our conversations, our businesses, homes, and our lives, to reside in those places as favored friends."
Her serial autobiographies announced, over and again, the power and place of the ditty and the anthem: "Music was my refuge," she wrote at the start of her third, "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas" (1976). "I could crawl into the spaces between the notes and curl my back to loneliness."
The lyric, the dropped octave, the snap and stitch, the quickening, the bird chirp in the still tree: This is how we remember Maya Angelou. We remember, too, Angelou's own relationship to loss. Her fear of death not for herself, but for others. Her tribute to Michael Jackson: "His hat, aslant over his brow, and took a pose on his toes for all of us." Her poem for Nelson Mandela: "We will not forget you, we will not dishonor you, we will remember and be glad that you lived among us, that you taught us, and that you loved us all."
And then there is this: the final stanza in the final poem in a collection called "I Shall Not Be Moved" (1990). The love is here. The hope is, too. And so, restoratively, are the sizzle and the jazz and the blues. The peace hoped for and sometimes won. The eyes on us, the sound — listen for it — electric:
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Beth Kephart is the author of 18 books, including "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir."
Maya Angelou: A selected bibliography
→I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
→Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971)
→Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976)
→I Shall Not Be Moved (1990)
→Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
→View Angelou's reading of "Still I Rise" at tinyurl.com/mjmmt9n.