I don't remember the first time I heard Maya Angelou's name or learned who she was. I don't even remember the first time I read her work. I just know she was always there. A poet. A woman. A force. Important. You might think it's because I've been reading her for so long that I can't remember when the words began, but that would not be correct. The truth is I'm pretty sure I've never read anything Maya Angelou wrote. Or, at least, I hadn't.
Now, slow your eye roll just a minute. I need you to know something about me. I read. Essays. Novels. Short stories. Long stories. Me and poetry, we have no problem with each other. I like poetry. I once dated a poem. I could recite "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" if you fed me a line or two, and for one summer in the early '00s, Edna St. Vincent Millay was my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So, how is it that I never read the work of someone prone to saying things like "I thought of myself as a giant ear…I would go into a room and just eat up the sound."
Who was this woman, this poet, this giant ear? The New York Times calls her a "lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South." When it comes to epitaphs, you could do worse. It could've been "author and activist," but "lyrical witness" suggests, almost ironically, a vital role to play. It's nearly enough to convince me that we are, at birth, dropped off at a very specific location, bags packed with a certain set of tools and our only job is to figure out how to use them. And, Angelou did just that, but so much more. Yes, she was a black Southern female writer. But, she was also black, Southern, female, and a writer. And, still then, she was more.
At 16, she dropped out of high school to become a cable-car conductor in San Francisco, where she had moved with her mother. This made her the first black female conductor in the city, though she soon left to finish school. As a young mother — Angelou had a son at 17 — she worked as a waitress and a cook. She dabbled in prostitution and modern dance, went on to become a calypso singer and dancer in the '50s, and adopted the stage name Maya Angelou — she was Marguerite Annie Johnson at birth. Later, she became a Broadway actress, a playwright, a screenwriter, a journalist, a film director (the first black woman), a songwriter, a civil-rights activist, a professor, and, of course, a bestselling author. She certainly had a lot to say for someone who once refused to talk.
Angelou was mute for several years as a child after her mother's boyfriend raped her. Though the man was charged and found guilty, he spent all of one day in jail. Four days later, he was murdered, most likely by Angelou's uncles. And, that was when she withdrew into silence. “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name," she wrote in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. "And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
It was poetry and the help of a woman named Bertha Flowers that restored her voice at age 11. On Fresh Air in 1986, Angelou recalled a conversation she had with Flowers while still mute and writing down her answers. "'Do you love poetry?' I wrote yes. It was a silly question from Mrs. Flowers; she knew. She told me, 'You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it. Until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.' And I ran out of her house. I thought: I'll never go back there again. She was trying to take my friend...Finally, I did take a book of poetry, and I went under the house and tried to speak, and could."
Though it was in this silence that Angelou fell for language's sound, it's not the only thing defines her. There was one other trait, at the very least, that allowed her to reinvent herself again and again: a distaste for the words "no," "can't," and "impossible." In fact, she only agreed to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after provocation from the man who would become her editor at Random House, Robert Loomis. He had offered her a book deal to write a memoir, but she kept turning him down. Finally, he agreed it was just as well. "Autobiography as literature," he said, "is almost impossible." She started the next day.
Even last year, two weeks before her 85th birthday, she was still not satisfied. "I still haven't written as well as I want to write," she told TIME magazine in the video above. "I want to write so the reader in Des Moines, IA, in Kowloon, China, in Cape Town, Pretoria, South Africa, in Harlem, in Boston...I want to write so the reader can say, 'You know, that's the truth. Yeah. I wasn't there, and I wasn't a six-foot-tall black girl, but that's the truth.'"