She has lived her life close to the bone, Maya Angelou, clung to every rung of the ladder: poor black country girl, living in a town no bigger than its own squint-eyed view of the world; grand slam success making fast tracks through the literary world; and in between, mother, stripper, activist, editor, fry-cook, waitress, fund raiser, singer, actress, dancer.
She has stormed through her life with hurricane intensity and written about it with much the same force in four volumes of autobiography. "She is outside and inside at the same time, looking at all of it with double vision . . . " wrote Ward Just when the first volume, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was published. "It is one woman, Maya Angelou, writing about her life and times and writing from a talent so strong as to make each part of it immediate, direct, devastating and -- oddly -- beautiful."
Maya Angelou smiles a smile that starts out easily enough but ends in something of a wince, as if sorrow was always there, tugging at the corners, marking her place. Her wide-set eyes are warm and wary, set in a face in which experience has etched a rough beauty. Her voice is deep and low, bearing her words along fast-moving currents.
There was something she learned a long time ago that has helped her survive. "Long ago, when I was about 21, I had a visitation of my mortality," she says. "I suddenly realized that I wouldn't live forever, and it so frightened me that I may have gone through a mild breakdown."
For several months, she says now, she was unable to sleep. "But I finally came through it, and admitted that I would die, that it was the one promise that would not be reneged on. Now given that, what will I do, what can buy me to do anything? They can't buy me life . . . I think most people murder other people, are unkind, brutalize, violate other people, allow themselves to be murdered, commit suicide, allow themselves to be violated, sell their full families off for messes of pottage, because they are afraid to die. That somehow these things will give them one more day. So once you get beyond that, your whole life is distilled. Every moment is precious.
"You bring all your equipment to everything, holding back nothing because that might be the last moment. I am constantly aware of that, which makes me existential in a very strange and serious way. So that all my stuff is here. I mean all my stuff is here. So that when I get on that plane tonight, and if it falls, it falls, but darlin', I will have been as present as possible, and as courageous as possible, and not a bore. Not a drag."
Maya Angelou is 53, and tall as a tower; an earth mother with just enough prima donna about her to make it interesting. She has the confidence of a barnstormer, she knows how to wing it. Certainly the life she's led has called for a wide variety of moves.
"Oh, I've lived a roller coaster life," she says. "There has been this disappointment and that satisfaction, and then it begins all over again. Or maybe it's one of those terrible rides that not only goes round and round, but also dips at the same time."
Now she has come to North Carolina, where she will teach at Wake Forest University and continue to write. "I'm going back to the country," she says. "I'm country, and that's the truth. There are country souls and city souls, and I'm a country soul."
Her odyssey began in the country, in the little town of Stamps, Ark., where Angelou, then Marguerite Johnson, and her brother Bailey moved when she was 3 and he was 4 following the breakup of their parents' marriage. For the next 10 years she was raised by her grandmother, Annie Henderson, stern, righteous and loving. Mrs. Henderson owned a general store that provided a center for life in the black part of town, and there her granddaughter grew up among the empty exhaustion of the cotton pickers, the harsh fervor of an all-enveloping religion and the alien world of the white folks who lived on the other side of town.
Her grandmother and her brother were heroes to her, and the overriding theme in her work, she says, is "that people live in direct relation to the heroes and she-roes they have. If individuals or groupings have noble heroes and she-roes, and I use the world noble meaning the best that we are, then that admiration lifts that person from baser pursuits." Writers were important as well: "I loved Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I loved Edgar Allan Poe. I loved the writers. Because I went through a period in my life, for about five years, when I was a mute, and words, written words, were everything to me."
She became mute soon after she was raped at the age of 8 by her mother's boyfriend, a man who was found beaten to death shortly afterwards. The little girl felt responsible for the death, the way children often take up burdens that balance precariously on inexperienced shoulders, and she decided she had to do something.
"I had to stop talking," she wrote in "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings." "I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence, all I had to do was to attach myself leech-like to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the wall like stones, and I simply stood still -- in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds."
"That condition, in its intensity, left me when I was about 13," she says now. "Occasionally, I find that the affliction is a little like malaria. It stays in the body, and from time to time, I reduce back to that." For all the things she has done in her life, she says, for all her reputation as a writer, the financial security, for all the "awards, accomplishments, and they are really quite formidable, there isn't one day since I was raped that I haven't thought about it . . . I have gotten beyond hate and fear, but there is something beyond that."
For over a decade now, she has chosen the subject of herself as the centerpiece of her working life, and while that developed quickly into a passion, it began as more of a challenge. "I was living in New York in 1967, and I thought of myself as a poet and a playwright and so forth. One night, James Baldwin took me out to dinner, to Jules and Judy Feiffers'. We were just four. After dinner, they told stories, and among that crowd, that was hard going." Impressed by Angelou's stories, Judy Feiffer called a friend at Random House who promptly called Angelou and asked her if she was interested in writing her autobiography.
She said no; the offer was repeated several times, even after she had moved out to the West Coast to produce a series of shows for educational television. "The last time the editor called," she remembers, "he said, 'Well, I can understand you refusing to write an autobiography, and it's probably best that you don't, because it's almost impossible to write autobiography as literature.' I said, 'I'll do it. It may kill me, but I'm going to die anyway, so why not do it.' "
Yes, she says, it is hard to scrape away the softening influence that the intervening years have had on the jagged memories. "I'm not masochistic," she says. "I have convinced myself that my work and my life is of meaning, and I mean that if I'm honest and courageous, I may make a difference. That's what allows me to go and enchant myself into that place, to remember exactly how it was. If you convince yourself that somebody might live because of it, then you can do it; the fear, of course, is that once you get back, you might not come out."
She would go early in the morning to a hotel room, and there in the spare, anonymous space, she would recreate her life, letting the room fill up with memory and meaning. She kept a Bible, a dictionary, a bottle of sherry, a crossword puzzle and a pack of playing cards there, and the yellow pads on which she wrote. "Sometimes it takes an hour and a half to shuffle off all the stuff, it's like taking off your clothes. And then you're back, it's like a time machine. Then you're there, and once you're there, you just pour out the stuff, what you see, and what you remember. How people looked and how they smelled, how warm it was. If their clothes were nubbly, things like that." The idea is to write it "so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart."
The latest volume takes her from life in Laurel Canyon, where she earned her living singing in a nightclub, to the tough scrape for life in New York City, where she performed at the Apollo Theatre, starred in a cast that included Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and James Earl Jones in Genet's "The Blacks," and worked as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Worked there, that is, until she met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter with whom she fell in love a week after they'd met.
The revolution did not begin at home -- Make was hostile to the idea of her working, nonchalant to the point of eviction toward the concept of paying the rent, and frankly astonished at her expectations of fidelity. Finally, in Egypt, where she was the associate editor of a magazine called the Arab Observer, she left him, but not before she was called before a "palaver" of their mutual friends in Cairo who debated the pros and cons of her decision. "You know, Maya, our people do not count on books or magazines to tell us what we need to know," her host told her when she walked into the meeting to find her future had suddenly become community property. "There are people here from Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Liberia. Sister, try hard and sit down."
"Years before I had understood that all I had to do, really had to do, was stay black and die," she writes in the latest volume of her autobiography, "The heart of a woman." "Nothing could be more interesting than the first or more permanent than the latter. In truly critical moments I reminded myself of those discoveries."
The book is filled with the bright promise of the early '60s, when every event to which she turned her attention was filled with the excitement of the possible. Looking back, she feels that the promise "was tragically defaulted upon. I believe this country had a chance. It was as if the late '50s and early '60s were divine gifts that we unfortunately buried through ignorance and greed, but mostly through ignorance. We're on a downward slide. I think the country's citizens are obliged now to look at their choices -- the budget cuts are going to make for some interesting ones."
And what is it like to look back on those exuberant times, after the slow erosion of those dreams? "It makes me feel old," she says flatly.
But she is not one to blunt the present by comparing it to the past; she has honed the blade of her life to a sharper edge. "The issue of trying to stay alive and find some grits to put on the table, and somebody to just give you some respect, you know, not even love, just respect, of finding a place to perpetuate one's God, these are issues very real and practical to 90 percent of the people in this country." Issues she tries still to stay close to, despite her own celebrity. "I try to keep myself as innocent as possible," she says. "If I can be a child of God, I can be used. I can be a conduit. I try to keep myself clean."
A tricky proposition, at best, this business of letting innocence filter experience. "As time goes by, it's hard not to take on the trappings of success, hard not to take on the bitterness of a bitter world. To be constant, clean and open." She laughs. "Of course, it means one drinks a bit too much now and then."
Recently the roller coaster took another plunge -- her marriage to builder Paul du Feu, "a marriage which was the eternal, never-to-be-broken-up marriage, broke. I decided to give California a rest." The "love of other human beings" has always been central to her, she says, but she will not say exactly which marriage this last one was. "I will say how old I am, I will say how tall I am, but I will not say how many times I have been married. It might frighten them off." But she does not think it was her last. "For awhile, I thought, 'That's it. I've done my best.' But now, I don't know. Lately I've noticed a little glint in my eye. I looked in the mirror and there was something there. There's a saying, you know -- 'Old don't mean cold.' "
Maya Angelou takes pride in her son and joy where she can find it. Guy Johnson, who was born to her when she was 16, is a poet in his own right, and the director of personnel for Santa Rosa, Calif. "He came to visit me in California," she says. "He said to me, 'Mom, you always say that if you have a monument in the world, your son is your monument. I don't like you to say that. You are your monument, as I am my own.' And I thought about it, and I thought, 'He's right.' "
Mother and son are living moment to moment these days, ever since her son's wife disappeared with their 5-year-old son. "The mother went underground with him. We don't know where he is. My son is hanging on to his sanity with his fingernails."
No, says Maya Angelou, "life doen't get any easier. But I'm alive, and as long as I'm alive, I have a chance of making it better. Sometimes it's going to be better, and sometimes it's going to be worse and part of the commitment one makes to life is to hang on. Life," she says, "loves the livers of it."