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- March 08, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 9
The Writer-Poet Continues to Find Art in Her Life as She Makes An Emotional Return to Her Native South
Angelou has never lacked it. She was born black and poor, trouble enough in the rural South of the 1920s. By age 3, she was the child of a broken home, shunted off to her paternal grandmother's care in tiny Stamps, Ark. Before her 8th birthday, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and forced to endure the further trauma of his trial; when her assailant was murdered after his release, she blamed herself and spoke hardly at all until she was nearly 13. At 17, she graduated from high school unwed and eight months pregnant. A year later, to support herself and her son, Guy, she became the madam of a two-woman whorehouse in San Diego, and then for a short time a prostitute herself.
Yet today, at 53, this same Maya Angelou is a protean woman, fluent in seven languages and the recipient of 13 honorary degrees. She was nominated for a National Book Award for her nonfiction and a Tony award for her acting. She is also an accomplished singer and dancer. When Bill Moyers launched his Creativity series on PBS last January, he understandably began with an interview with Maya Angelou. "Maya is one of those totally steadfast people with a spine made of iron," says her longtime friend, writer Jessica (The American Way of Death) Mitford. "She's a force of nature with so many talents in every direction that the combination comes like an earthquake."
Recently Maya drew again on her writer's capital—her extraordinary life—to publish The Heart of a Woman. It is the fourth volume of her autobiography, which began in 1970 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. For her, writing is a hurtful process of "dragging my pencil across the old scars to sharpen it." Alone with stacks of yellow legal pads, dictionary, Bible, bottle of sherry, solitaire deck and an honest rage, she observes that "it's still scary every time I go back to the past. Each morning my heart catches. When I get there, I remember how the light was, where the draft was coming from, what odors were in the air. When I write, I get all the weeping out."
Her mother, Vivian, reports that Maya undergoes a complete transformation while writing and becomes "a zombie." Adds her friend Mitford: "Maya's so odd, she can't stay home when she's doing it. A couple of times she has rented a deliberately horrid little flat in London, mingy and tasteless so she'll have no distractions. When she wrote her last book—and this isn't complimentary to my house—she came over here and did it in an upstairs bedroom."
Maya's latest move is perhaps the most unexpected. After living in California for a decade, she has dramatically returned to her native South, accepting a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was an emotionally charged decision, full of ambivalence. "Black people comprehend the South," she has explained. "We understand its weight. It has rested on our backs.... I knew that my heart would break if ever I put my foot down on that soil, moist, still, with old hurts." But she decided to return because "I had to face the fear/loathing at its source or it would consume me whole." (Of all her awards, she most cherishes the honorary degree she received from the University of Arkansas—which is only a stone's throw from the land where her great-grandmother was a slave.)
Maya's return to the South followed a harrowing series of misfortunes. Within a few weeks last spring she had an ugly dispute with her longtime manager; her seven-year marriage to second husband Paul du Feu collapsed; and her only grandchild was abducted by his mother. It happened after Maya's son, Guy Johnson, 36, was awarded custody in a bitter court battle. With an instinct for survival that is second nature by now, Maya fired her manager and separated from her husband. She also assisted Guy, a poet and personnel analyst in Sonoma County, Calif., in a statewide search for his white ex-wife, Sharon Murphy, and 6-year-old Colin Ashanti Murphy-Johnson. After spending thousands of dollars on private detectives, they learned that Sharon has gone underground with the help of a radical feminist group. "All we know about this group is that they hate men and blacks," says Maya, "and they have my black, male grandchild."
Maya inherited her determination from her family. Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, she was the daughter of Bailey Johnson, a civilian dietician for the Navy who died in 1969, and Vivian Baxter Wilburn, whose numerous careers have included real estate broker, surgical nurse and merchant marine radio operator. "Anytime anything was being taught, my mother studied it and got certified," recalls Maya. She has lost track of her older brother, Bailey ("the person in my family closest to being a genius"), but remains in close contact with her mother, now 70, remarried and retired in Stockton, Calif.
When Maya was 21, she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek-American sailor she met while working in a record shop in San Francisco. "I never expected anyone to take care of me, but in my wildest dreams and juvenile yearnings, I wanted the house with the picket fence from June Allyson movies," she says. "I knew that was yearning like one yearns to fly." When the marriage dissolved three years later, she changed her name to Maya (her childhood nickname) Angelou on her drama coach's advice and tried her hand at show business. While singing calypso and blues in San Francisco's hip Purple Onion, she was hired by a road company of Porgy and Bess and toured Europe and Africa in 1954-55, leaving Guy with her mother in San Francisco.
Homesick for her son, she returned to the West Coast in 1955 and resumed her nightclub career. In 1959 she and young Guy moved to New York, where Maya joined the Harlem Writers Guild, sang at the Apollo Theatre and collaborated with Godfrey Cambridge in producing and performing in Cabaret for Freedom. A rights activist, she was drafted by Martin Luther King Jr. as northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Politics entered her romantic life, too: She jilted her fiancé, a bail bondsman, to take up with a South African black activist, Vusumzi Make. During their three-year relationship they lived in New York and Cairo, where she worked on the weekly news magazine Arab Observer. Then, leaving Make because of his frequent affairs, she moved to Ghana, where she was a university administrator and an editor of the African Review, a political monthly.
Not long after her return to the States in 1966, author James Baldwin took Maya to dinner at cartoonist-writer Jules Feiffer's house. "We were drinking and talking and fighting for the right to tell stories," remembers Maya. "The next day Jules' wife, Judy, called a friend at Random House and told him if he could get me to write an autobiography, he'd have something." Busy producing a 10-hour television series for PBS, Maya rebuffed editor Bob Loomis during several phone conversations. Then he baited her. "He told me it was almost impossible to write autobiography as literature and I probably couldn't do it anyway," she remembers. "I said: 'I'll do it'!"
When Caged Bird was published in 1970, the critics were generous—as they were the following year over her first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie. At a London literary party Maya met Paul du Feu, a carpenter and construction worker who had acquired some notoriety himself as Germaine (The Female Eunuch) Greer's ex-husband and as the first nude centerfold for British Cosmopolitan. She fell deeply in love, and they were married in 1973, settling on the West Coast. Paul remodeled and built houses, while Maya expanded her career. She directed for film and television, acted on Broadway and in TV's Roots (in which she played Kunta Kinte's grandmother), and co-authored the script of the TV-movie Caged Bird.
Then "the eternal, never-to-be-broken-up marriage" failed. Maya is reluctant to discuss why. "I know that I'm not the easiest person to live with," she says. "The challenge I put on myself is so great that the person I live with feels himself challenged. I bring a lot to bear and I don't know how not to." Paul is now living alone in the Bay Area. "I love Paul du Feu and I feel like seeing him right now," says Maya, "but it would just drag me." She has had difficulties with men before. "I have lost good men—or men I might have been able to turn into good men—because I have no middle passage," she says. "When a voice is raised to me, I think, 'You want to kill me, but you don't have the nerve. Get out. Immediately.' I know I have taken it to the extreme—he might only have said, 'I don't like the way you cook the rice'—because I take everything to the max."
For the past 10 months Maya has been living in a genteel, 10-room house on the wooded outskirts of Winston-Salem, preparing her lectures on politics and literature. She entertains a circle of diverse friends who include Reynolds tobacco gentry, academics and young professionals. Is remarriage a possibility? "I'm not going to be alone forever, I know that," she asserts. "Who I'll be with and under what conditions, I have no idea. My next husband might be a Japanese sumo wrestler. If the man has the wit and the courage to pursue me, then I'll respond."
In the meantime she is continuing a 24-city lecture tour, despite an occasional death threat from bigots inflamed by her passionate opinions. "I will go anywhere at any time," says Maya. "No one frightens me. Everything costs. It would cost me if I was not famous or successful—I would pay for it in another way. I really heard my mother years ago when she told me: 'You may not get what you paid for, but you will pay for what you get.' "
January 27, 2015
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