Maya Angelou had one of the most prolific and influential careers in modern literature — her influence is notable everywhere from Oprah Winfrey’s career to the pages of Entertainment Weekly. To mark 50 years since she published her groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we looked into our archives to reflect on her incomparable life and legacy.
Maya Angelou, 1928-2014
by Janet Jackson
The poetry and prose of Dr. Maya Angelou inspired not only people and presidents but Hollywood. John Singleton’s 1993 film, Poetic Justice, features some of the author’s most indelible work. The film’s star Janet Jackson remembers the woman behind the words. [From the June 13, 2014 issue]
The first time I met Dr. Maya Angelou was around the filming of Poetic Justice in 1992. I was young, 25 years old. I knew how important she was from my mother, brothers, and sisters, but when we first met all those years ago, I had never really heard her voice. Back then, we didn’t have YouTube or DVDs, so I just read her work as much as I could. Her voice was so strong. She had a powerful impact on me.
I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and learning that she had suffered abuse as a child. The effects of the abuse, and all that occurred after, silenced her. Yet she transformed herself into this incredible iconic figure — so iconic, in fact, that those words are a huge understatement. She shattered barriers not just for African-American women but for ALL women. There are no barriers of color or gender when it comes to Dr. Angelou.
The poems of hers that impacted me the deepest are “Phenomenal Woman,” which I recited in the film, and “Still I Rise.” The empowering truth of them resonates with all women.
She is a genius, an activist, a trailblazer, and so much more. There is no word that exists to describe how phenomenal this woman will always be. She dedicated her life to teaching us how to better ourselves. She taught me, and the world, to know who you are and where you come from and to embrace yourself — your power and your phenomenal beauty — in every aspect. She taught us the importance of knowing our worth.
We stayed in touch after filming ended, and I had the pleasure of staying with her for a little while at her home. She was never uncomfortable in any situation, but to see her in her own surroundings, in her own zone, was very moving. She knew who she was, and I could relate to that in my own way. She was always working to instill values in those she called “her children,” and everyone was her child. Her literary work is a gift that we can never repay, and even though she is gone, her work will continue for generations to come. She has left it not to me, but to the world.
The Essential Angelou
Her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a classic of contemporary literature (and a staple of high school English classes). But these less heralded works are also worth searching out. —Tina Jordan [From the June 13, 2014 issue]
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (1971)
Angelou’s first volume of poetry tackles the tough topics head-on: race, class, poverty, skin color, relationships, addiction. The book is split into two sections — the first deals with love, the second with the African-American experience.
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
This memoir — the fourth of seven — brims with the hustle and clang of late-’50s and early-’60s New York City, where Angelou scraped together a living by singing, acting, and dancing — all the while becoming increasingly immersed in activism and growing ever more interested in writing.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
When she lived in Ghana in the 1960s, Angelou yearned to be seen as a returning daughter — but as she recounts in her fifth memoir, she discovered some painful truths about identity and belonging, about her African self versus her African-American self.
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
This essay collection — spilling over with personal experiences and snippets of wisdom — is quintessential Angelou, more in performance mode than in writer mode. Her vivid personality leaps off the page as she infuses her readers with pride, strength, and hope.
How to Make An American Quilt: Review
At first glance, How to Make an American Quilt (Universal, PG-13) looks like a Winona Ryder greatest-hits package: Reality Bites a Little Woman. As in Reality, Ryder plays a Gen Xer unsure of what to do with her life — here she’s a Berkeley grad student contemplating marriage to a carpenter (Dermot Mulroney). As in Women, Ryder finds her way with the help of an extended family of eccentric females — a rural California quilting bee that includes her great-aunt (Anne Bancroft) and her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn).
Soon, however, it becomes clear that Quilt is actually cut from the same cloth as Fried Green Tomatoes and The Joy Luck Club. Through a string of flashbacks, Ryder’s Finn learns from the travails of her foremothers. The moral of each story is the same: Men stink. Yet, rendered with minimal sanctimony by director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) and screenwriter Jane Anderson (HBO’s Texas Cheerleader movie), most of the tales spin off in diverting directions.
Though she’s the lead, Ryder plays a passive listener, a role at which she’s most convincing when transfixed by pot-smoking sisters Burstyn and Bancroft. A study in contrasts, Burstyn is as subtle as Bancroft is hammy. Poet Maya Angelou executes Quilt‘s finest turn as an ex-domestic and leader of the sewing circle. Her cadences may not be those of a professional thespian, but Angelou knows how to use her wonderfully fluid voice to tell a story. This kind of movie is why God created Best Supporting Actress Oscars.
The teeming cast isn’t seamless. Two of Ryder’s Little Women sibs, Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes, fare poorly. Mathis allegedly ages from an adolescent to the mother of a college-bound daughter, though she barely looks old enough to vote. Danes doesn’t resemble Bancroft enough to pass for a younger version of her character. Among Quilt‘s men, only Rip Torn (as Bancroft’s morally weak husband) and the immensely likable Mulroney evoke more than one dimension.
Despite a few threadbare patches, How to Make an American Quilt hangs together nicely. The characters sneak up on you; before you know it, you care about them. When Moorhouse resorts to a mawkish climax, mixing melodrama with magic realism, you buy it because her film is as warm and cozy as.well, you get the picture. B —Bruce Fretts [From the Oct. 13, 1995 issue]
“Everybody’s All-American: Her inaugural ode has made Maya Angelou a poet-heroine”
Backstage at Carnegie Hall, a tall, handsome woman dressed in black sits regally in a velvet-backed folding chair, surrounded by a throng of admirers in evening clothes. Maya Angelou has just helped host a glittering 75th- birthday tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, but the crowd is more dazzled by a previous Angelou appearance.
“The first time I see you is at the inauguration,” says a gray-haired woman in a black fur coat, speaking with a heavy, French-sounding accent. “You made me cry.”
Angelou, whose arthritic right hand is wrapped in an Ace bandage, puts down her plastic cup of Scotch and reaches for the woman’s hand. “Best wishes,” she says slowly, in her deep, rich voice. “What is your language?”
Angelou‘s dramatic and moving presence at President Clinton’s inauguration, where she read “On the Pulse of Morning,” a poem commissioned by the President, has turned the poet and memoirist into a media star. It has also had a dramatic impact on her work — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her five volumes of memoirs, has jumped onto the paperback best-seller lists, and sales of Angelou‘s six paperbacks have increased as much as 600 percent. Response to “On the Pulse of Morning,” a tribute to the ethnic diversity of America, has been so strong that Random House, her hardcover publisher, just released it in a five dollar commemorative edition.
“People say to me, ‘Thank you for our poem.’ That’s what I wanted,” says Angelou. Her verse is also featured as the work of a poet played by Janet Jackson in the upcoming John Singleton movie Poetic Justice; Angelou, who had a small role in the miniseries Roots, has a cameo as Jackson’s aunt. But it is ironic that Angelou, with a long and distinguished career as a woman of letters, is being lionized as the newly discovered poet of the moment.
Though she is certainly a poet (Bantam published Poems, an anthology, in 1986), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has sold more than two million copies since it first appeared in 1970. Bird, which describes Angelou‘s painful yet triumphant Arkansas childhood, is considered a centerpiece of American autobiography. And with books like The Heart of a Woman (Random House, 1981), she has continued to tell her own remarkable story — she has been, by turns, a singer, a dancer, and a civil rights activist-while weaving in the richness of black cultural life. Yet the public’s sudden embrace of Angelou, whose appeal cuts across racial, economic, and educational boundaries, has been almost overwhelming.
These days, the 64-year-old Angelou, an American-studies professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., is mobbed by teary fans nearly everywhere she goes. The day after the Fitzgerald tribute, she met with a group of awestruck students at New York City’s Pace University before giving a speech there; one young woman was so moved that she wept openly, then began singing a hymn.
“I think my delivery (at the inauguration) had its own impact,” Angelou says. “Before, I could pass 100 people and maybe 10 would recognize me. Now, maybe 40 percent recognize me. If they hear my voice, another 30 percent do too.”
Such recognition comes at a price, though it is one that amuses Angelou as much as it may unnerve her. Recently, in the Atlanta airport, she was treated more like a rock star than like a famous author. “(Somebody) got excited,” she says with a laugh. “‘There she is! That’s the poet!’ People started running. I just stopped. Then they all stopped. They were a little ashamed of having lost it for a second.” —Meredith Berkman [From the Feb. 26, 1993 issue]