Maya Angelou made homemade biscuits for guests in her home outside Los Angeles not long ago and offered a poet's view of Washington:
"It is a strange thing to come from a dinner with a few members of the congressional black caucus or educators where you've been discussing the pith and issues of the moment and you get in the car and you're on 14th street, surrounded by 14 or 15-year-old women walking the sidewalks . . ."
Maya Angelou knows something about life. A writer, her bestseller, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first of a four-part autobiography. Which is about how many volumnes you need to wrap up forty-eight years that began with such traumas as rape at eight, a baby at sixteen, followed by stints as a stripper, actress, and singer. Said James Baldwin of Angelou: "You will hear the regal woman, the mischievous street girl; you will hear the price of a black woman's survival and you will hear of her generosity. Black, bitter and beautiful, she speaks of our survival."
For her part, Angelou - striking at six feet, gorgeous with a smile that seems larger than her face - saves the socko imagery for her writing. ("In my rented room," she once wrote, "I would play a record, then put my arms around the shoulders of the song. As we danced, glued together, I would nuzzle into its neck, kissing the skin, and rubbing its cheek with my own.") For the last six years she's been married to Germaine Greer's former husband, builder and carpenter Paul du Feu; her mother works on freighters that ply the Pacific. Angelou's latest script, "Sisters," is in production and will appear as a movie on NBC this fall. At the same time Random House will publish her third book of poetry.
"My equipment tends to be that of a social humanitarian and a poet, which I suppose is the same thing, and I tend to watch how people are," she says, recalling time spent in the nation's capital. "I have three very close friends in Washington, two black and one white and they live about fifteen blocks apart. They have much to share, to laugh about, but because Washington is incredibly segregated, these women would, if they met at a public gathering, hardly get to know each other. Washingtonians tend by their placement to live more prescribed lives than westerners; I find that not only sad but shocking."
At the behest of Gerald Ford, Angelou traveled the country in 1976 as part of a committee of twenty-five prominent Americans who devised ways to celebrate America's birthday.
"If I had it to do over, I'd try to encourage acceptance of the diversity in this country," says the woman who in her Arkansas youth harbored as she plotted ways of escaping her poverty."We really are fifteen countries and it's remarkable that each of us thinks we represent the real America. The midwesterner in Kansas, the black American in Durham - both are certain they're the real America. And Boston just knows it is . . ."
Angelou disppears each morning to a secret hotel, "the meanest, grimmest old odobe hotel," where, undistracted, she writes.
"My home is usually very pretty, with objects that take my eye and then my mind," she says. So she goes into seclusion with a couple of dictionaries, a Bible, some dry California sherry, cigarettes and a crossword puzzle at her cell-like hotel room. From 7:30 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon she works over a legal pad.
"One of the problems we have as writers is we don't take ourselves seriously while writing; being serious is setting aside a time and saying if it comes, good, if it doesn't come, good, if it doesn't come, good, I'll just sit here."