I hope to look through my life at life. I want to use what has happened to me — is happening to me — to see what human beings are like.
— Maya Angelou (1992)
She's the tall, imposing cocoa-skinned woman standing in the winter's chill, the poet reminding the nation and its leaders of the fragility of our planet, the wonder of life, the hope of humankind at William Jefferson Clinton's first inauguration as President of the United States. She's the writer sharing hard-earned wisdom, humorous and painful truths and powerful affirmations, urging her readers to laugh, to dare, to strive, to dream, to love, to say Yes! to life. The autobiographer whose frank thoughtful sharing of her life's journey continues to captivate, challenge, and inspire readers of all ages around the world. The much sought after speaker urging her audiences to own their truths, claim their voices, and fully embrace their lives. Calling us to higher ground, her words nurture our spirits, stretch our minds, and stir our hearts. Her messages affirm our shared humanity, the human experience, and the sacredness of life. We laugh and rejoice with her. She challenges us and calls us to love ourselves and one another, to live fully, savor life, and embrace our potential. Her voice — hot chocolate smooth, melodious and welcoming — holds listeners spellbound. Her laughter starts deep, envelopes, and invites us all to share the joy.
Her name is Maya Angelou.
And hers is a rich life. She's danced and sung in theaters and nightclubs, acted, written, and directed works for the stage, television, and film. She's a college professor, serious scholar, and a generous mentor. She's the loving mother of one son, a proud grandmother, and wise, doting great-grandmother. She's a woman with a grand passion for life that she's shared with husbands and soulmates, with family, chosen kin, and an enduring ever-expanding circle of friends; she lives the life she sings about on the page to the fullest. Her homes, elegantly appointed, always welcoming and comfortable, abound with hundreds of books and the art that she's collected all of her adult life. Her skill in the kitchen is the stuff of legend — from haute cuisine to down-home comfort food — and the source of great pleasure for both the cook and those invited to share. At her table God is always thanked, food savored, laughter and rich talk encouraged. She revels in gathering folk around her, in her home, at her table, ever welcoming.
Now, as she steps into the eightieth year of her life, she remains as curious and zestful as a young woman, maintaining a schedule that many people half her age would find daunting. She spends weeks traveling the blue highways of America in her customized bus en route to speaking engagements before audiences ranging from children and college students, to folks from all walks of life. Wherever she goes there are always interviews to be given; television and radio appearances; book signings; meetings with local officials, community groups, activists, writers and artists, but she always finds time to share laughter and break bread with friends old and new.
Ever the writer, disciplined and focused, whether on the road or at home, she works at her craft. She writes in longhand on yellow legal pads, poetry and prose in constant progress. She is the creator of a very successful, special collection of products for Hallmark that ranges from greeting cards to decorative accessories in the sumptuous fabrics and jewel colors that she loves. Her passion for theater and film is undiminished. There are always directing, acting, writing projects in the mix or on her to-do list. And then there's her work as a distinguished professor at Wake Forest University in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, where she holds a lifetime chair and students vie for admission to her seminar series.
The woman who never attended college has been the recipient of dozens of honorary degrees in recognition of all her accomplishments and takes due pride in being called Dr. Angelou. A serious scholar and formidable intellectual thinker, she's ever curious, open to learning, to new ideas, to questions. She's a voracious and eclectic reader and a connoisseur of libraries. She is multilingual, fluent in French, Spanish, Fanti, Italian, and Arabic — a reflection of a native gift, a highly tuned ear and appreciation for the nuances of language, and of her keen desire to live in the world.
Living in the world also means working to improve the quality of life on the planet. She is and has long been a tireless activist lending support to efforts to improve the lives of women and children, championing education, racial, gender, social, and economic justice, human rights, and peace.
She's a woman, an African American woman, a Renaissance woman in the truest sense of the word.
Her name is Maya Angelou.
When at home in her primary residence in Winston-Salem, Maya Angelou often sits at a table strategically placed in a nook midway between her open kitchen and formal dining and living rooms. The many cookbooks that she's collected throughout the years are on shelves in easy reach. From her seat at the table Maya can easily turn to check on the activity in her kitchen, reminding her housekeeper to stir a pot or instructing her on how to season a dish. It's where she reads correspondence, handles many of her business affairs, often chats with friends and family and shares in formal meals. She always keeps a deck of cards close for the many games of solitaire — played to occupy her "Little Mind" and free up her "big mind." There are always books around — her own and those of others — to be read or signed, shared or referenced, and yellow legal pads, personalized stationery, and pens close at hand. Among the books there are three well-thumbed constants: a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a Bible. A beautifully wrought ceramic angel with a beaming smile, a gift from her son Guy, stands sentinel.
Her table sits close to a multi-windowed wall offering a clear view of the many tall trees, the natural and carefully landscaped beauty of her grounds. At the base of the window photographs of her biological and chosen family cluster, smiling faces and group shots, in varying life stages. But her chair faces the nook's narrow, rouge- red wall, a space she has reserved to honor and remember three of her ancestors. Their photographs quietly dominate the space. To the left there is her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, a study in serenity; to the right her mother, Vivian Baxter, her vivacious spirit shining through; and below, the solemn, unflinching gaze of her paternal great-grandmother, Kentucky Shannon: three women, all iron-willed, powerful spirits, who in their time dared to stand their ground and claim their lives. Maya Angelou never forgets the people who gave her life, the bloodline she shares, the spiritual legacy she carries.
Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery. When freedom came she claimed her independence by choosing to rename herself Kentucky Shannon. Generations later her great-granddaughter would chose to rename herself when setting her face to the future. When she was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, her parents, Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter Johnson, named her Marguerite. She was their second child. A son, whom they named Bailey after his father, had been born a year earlier.
Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a son of the rural South, one among the legions of Black migrants drawn north to escape the South's blatant, violent oppression and in search of a better life. Her mother, born and raised in St. Louis, was every inch an urban woman. She, one of two daughters surrounded by four brothers, was smart and sassy, sophisticated and daring. Nothing and no one ever seemed to intimidate her. Vivian Baxter was a woman ahead of her time. Her father was the younger of two sons. He was big and handsome and also a bit of a cynic, whose mannered speech and personal style reflected his desire to distance himself from his rural southern roots. Vivian and Bailey's daughter would inherit her parents' magnetic personalities, their powerful egos, and their strong independent streaks.
When Marguerite was still a babe in arms the young family packed their bags and headed west. Her parents must have dazzled each other when they met and married in St. Louis, but their tumultuous union imploded in California. Perhaps the qualities that drew them to each other also tore them apart. After the marriage collapsed, the three–year–old Marguerite and her brother, Bailey, were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother.
They put me and my brother on a train, without any companionship, without any adult, put tags on our arms, and said, "This child should be delivered to Miss Annie Henderson in Stamps, Ark." ...
For years I thought what they'd done was a terrible thing, but then I found out that Bailey and I were just part of a legion of black children whose parents had taken them out of the South thinking that things would be better for them. Unfortunately that wasn't always so, and the parents would send the children back south to their grandparents, while the parents scuffled and sweated trying to make a better life . . .
— As told to Marcia Ann Gillespie
Stamps was a small rural community, two communities really, one Black the other White, warily coinciding under the toxic strictures of segregation. The Black folks in Stamps were tight-knit; they all knew each other. They shared memories, history, and often blood. They had few worldly possessions and struggled to make do, but they were sustained by a thriving folk culture, a rich spiritual life, and a powerful, finely tuned sense of community.
Annie Henderson was an extraordinary woman. She married three times, bore two sons and single-handedly built her own business. She was a woman of substance and stature in her community, a pillar of her church, humble in her faith, and a great judge of human nature. It was in her paternal grandmother's keeping that the little Marguerite Johnson found safe harbor. So much of her wisdom and grace, her sensibilities and faith stem from this source.
One of my earliest memories of Mamma, of my grandmother, is a glimpse of a tall cinnamon-colored woman with a deep, soft voice, standing thousands of feet up in the air on nothing visible. That incredible vision was the result of what my imagination would do each time Mamma drew herself up to her full six feet, clasped her hands behind her back, looked up into the distant sky, and said "I will step out on the word of God."
—Maya Angelou, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now, Random House, 1993
Annie Henderson was the proprietor of the only general store in the Black community, no mean feat for a woman, especially a barely literate Black woman in that place and time. That store was the result of years of hard labor cooking and selling food to the cotton and sawmill workers, and a shrewd business instinct. She lived and worked there with her other son, the children's Uncle Willie, who as a child had been badly crippled in an accident. The store was a focal point for the Black community and a never- ending source of wonder for Maya and her brother.
It was a glorious place. I remember the wonderful smells; the aroma of the pickle barrel, the bulging sacks of corn, the luscious, ripe fruit. You could pick up a can of snuff from North Carolina, a box of matches from Ohio, a yard of ribbon from New York. All of those places seemed terribly exotic to me. I would fantasize how people from there had actually touched those objects. It was a magnificent experience!
—Stephanie Stokes Oliver, "Maya Angelou: The Heart Of The Woman," Essence, May 1983
Annie Henderson was a woman with a deep faith, unflinching honesty, profound wisdom and an abiding love for her family, which informed the life lessons she sought to teach her grandchildren: "At least ten times a year my grandmother would tell me... "Sister, if you see something you don't like, do everything you can do, that's right to do, to change it. And if you can't change it, change the way you think about it." Over the years, I learned how absolutely right she was." (Jann Malone, "The Passions of Maya Angelou," Times-Dispatch, March 25, 2007)
In Stamps, Marguerite Johnson developed her love of nature, absorbed the folk wisdom and culture whose roots stretched back to West Africa, embraced faith in the bosom of the Black church, and witnessed the power of the word—spoken and sung—and of music to move people to higher ground. And it was in the church that she, like so many Black children, was encouraged to stand and speak in front of the public reciting poetry or selected prose in special programs. She was a thoughtful, studious seven-year-old — taller than her age mates — when her big, talkative, "blindingly handsome" father swooped back into his children's lives. He had come to take them to St. Louis to live with their mother. For her brother, Bailey, the move to the big city was an adventure. Bailey was totally enraptured by his mother and overjoyed to be with her again. Reconnecting with the mother she barely knew and her worldly wise maternal kin, adapting to a fast urban pace, a new school, and making new friends was a more challenging adjustment for Marguerite.
Grandmother Henderson had been her rock, a solid predictable presence. Her mother, though diminutive in size, was a powerful force, strong and decisive, a bold risk taker, with an effervescent and far more volatile personality. "To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Random House, 1970).
When Vivian Baxter was in a room one paid attention. But she was not the mother the little girl from Stamps had longed for:
My mother has had a more profound influence on me since I've been an adult than she did as a child. I've come to the conclusion that some adults are not really qualified to be parents of young children. They make much better parents of adults. My mother is that type.
Today, we have a much closer relationship. She knows how to be a friend, and when to stay out of my business. However, I felt very little positive influence from her as a child. I owe much more to my grandmother and my brother, whom I credit with saving my life — both my mental and spiritual life, as well as my breathing-in and breathing-out life.
— Jeffrey Elliott, "Maya Angelou Raps," Sepia, October 1977
In St. Louis, Marguerite got to know her maternal kin: the Baxter's were a fierce clan. Her maternal grandmother was a politically savvy wheeler-dealer who wielded a great deal of power in the Black community. Her hardworking maternal grandfather doted on his wife and children and encouraged their independence. And people minded their p's and q's around Vivian and her siblings, who were all hot-tempered and dangerous when riled.
Excerpted from Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration by Marcia Ann Gillespie, Rosa Johnson Butler and Richard A. Long. Foreword by Oprah Winfrey Copyright © 2008 by Marcia Ann Gillespie. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.