Songs of Herself

By Reviewed by Valerie Sayers
Sunday, September 28, 2008


By Maya Angelou

Random House. 166 pp. $25

Maya Angelou published her blockbuster memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969, when she was in her early 40s and I was a 17-year-old white Southerner trying my luck in New York City. Catching her on late night television, I fell utterly under her spell. I loved her delighted laugh, the studied cadences of her rich voice, her graciousness -- especially to white interviewers who couldn't get enough of her stories about growing up black in the Jim Crow South. In that time before everybody and his uncle wrote memoirs, I felt I must read her story. She was willing to speak plainly about race and to describe how she was raped as an 8-year-old. If that violation left her mute for several years, she vindicated her silence by trying her luck as a performer and then a writer, and it appeared she could hold rapt any audience she chose to entertain.

Nearly 40 years, six (six!) autobiographies, a dozen collections of poetry, a sprinkling of essays, children's books and a cookbook later, Angelou -- who turned 80 this spring -- has written another book, this one an odd little hodgepodge of sound advice, vivid memory and strong opinion. Despite the slimness of the volume and the randomness of its offerings, I still find myself charmed by her plain talk.

I am, after all, her intended audience. Though she is the mother of one son, to whom she gave birth when she was just 16, Angelou has dedicated these musings to her "thousands of daughters . . . Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut . . . pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered." Angelou's phenomenal publishing success brought her pop culture fame but also an endowed professorship at Wake Forest University and an invitation to write and perform an instantly famous poem on the occasion of President Bill Clinton's first inauguration. Aiming straight for that intersection of the "educated and unlettered," she is still as much performer as poet or memoirist, and she is not terribly interested in the distinctions between high and low art. She is a Magnificent Public Personality, and if a few jabs about commercialism have been thrown her way since Hallmark launched the Maya Angelou line of greeting cards in 2002, I doubt they have bruised her. She continues to explore new angles of her own exuberant story, insists on civic engagement and reminds all her readers of the rich traditions of African American letters.

Angelou's poetry and prose are similar. Both rely on that direct voice of hers, which alternates steady rhythms with playful syncopated surprise (among her many occupations, she is a songwriter). She has a gift for memorable similes and metaphors: That caged bird certainly caught a nation's attention. In Letter to My Daughter she invokes "our real selves, the children inside . . . still innocent and shy as magnolias" and pays homage to generations of black workers who migrated north only to be "spit out by the system like so many undigestible watermelon seeds."

But it is, more than anything, her sense of self that carries her language; the little girl shamed into silence nonetheless "had a devoted family led by a fearless, doting, and glorious grandmother" and a mother who urged her to smile and to face childbirth with comic punch lines. "So," she says, "I became proud of myself."

With a show of supreme confidence (like many great ladies of the stage and the page, she admits to fierce doubts), Angelou holds court with little essays of three and four pages. Some recycle stories familiar from her autobiographies; some bear witness to our country's history of dreadful racial oppression; some recall famous souls: Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, Celia Cruz and Coretta Scott King come to brief, impressionistic life in these pages. Angelou's generous thoughts on grieving and giving birth alternate with brief sermons on vulgarity and truth telling, and even those disinclined to listen to a preacher may sit down and listen to what Maya Angelou has to say. But the best sections of this collection are those in which she pays homage to the poets who jump-started her imagination, among them Sterling A. Brown, Melvin B. Tolson, Mari Evans and especially Langston Hughes, who is quoted to strong effect.

Most of Angelou's reflections are sensible and consoling, though occasionally a smart point -- that, for example, rape is not simply about power -- is insufficiently developed. It's not clear why an editor hasn't arranged these pieces a little more judiciously. The beautiful little essay on Coretta Scott King, for example, is wedged between two sermonettes, on self-defense and condolences, instead of finding a home with the other biographical sketches.

What is clear is that Angelou is, all these years later, still a charmer, still speaking her mind. She is clear about what she won't tolerate but full of affirmations and generous to those who have buoyed her. She ends the collection with her own gospel song to her grandmother: "You said to call on your name/And I am calling/I'm stepping out on your word."

As always, it is a kick to follow her journey. ยท

Valerie Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, writes novels, stories and essays.

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