Only Maya Angelou can write about loss and make it uplifting. She proved it with the very first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1958), and she achieves it again with her sixth and last volume of memoirs, A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
In this new book, Dr. Angelou recalls bidding a painful goodbye to Ghana, the country she loved, and to a man she loved there, returning to a much-changed United States. "The year was 1964," Angelou writes. "The cry of burn, baby, burn' was loud in the land, and black people had gone from the earlier mode of sit-in' to set fire,' and from march-in' to break-in.'" No sooner did she land in San Francisco than her friend Malcolm X was shot and killed. The riots at Watts followed. So did the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Her hopes and idealism shattered, Angelou felt each loss like a blow to the heart. "I was blitheringly innocent until I was about 35," she said in a recent interview. "I seem to have had the scales pulled off my eyes, and I decided I didn't like that. What I have done, what most of us do, is contrive an innocence. I contrived an innocence that kept me and keeps me quite young. However just behind that facade there is a knowing. By the time Dr. King was killed, I came to understand a lot of things. I learned I could handle myself. I learned a lot about my own inner strength. I learned that I was greatly loved."
The love of family and friends like author James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time) sustained her. "Agape love, the power of it really was made clear to me. There's a statement Polonius makes in Hamlet when he's talking to his son, in that 'To thine own self be true' monologue. 'Those friends thou has and their adoption tried/Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.' I didn't know how important that was until those rigorous, vigorous challenging years. I learned, ah, that's what that means."
As she cast about deciding what to do with her life, Angelou put food on the table by singing in a Honolulu night club. Anyone familiar with the voice as warm and welcoming as a hearth fire can well imagine her as a singer, but Angelou decided it was too demanding a profession, requiring too much sacrifice. Why, then, did she decide to write?
"I love it, I love it, I love it," says Angelou, now a professor of American Studies at North Carolina's Wake Forest University. "I believe literature has the power, the ability to move men's and women's souls. The work is so tedious, but I love the feeling of putting together a few nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives and rolling them together; I just do." A Song Flung Up to Heaven, the author credits James Baldwin and Random House editor Robert Loomis with giving her the courage to write her own story. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings launched Angelou, then 30, as an author and as a role model of strength, courage and dignity. It's been both a reward and a responsibility.
"It has its burden in that I'm careful about what I say. I don't go out a lot. I go to friends' houses and they come to mine, but I'm always a little edgy when people are too adoring," says the author. "I believe that quite often that person who is at your feet will change position. If the winds of fortune change, that person will be at the throat. So when someone says, you're the greatest, I say, ahhh, how kind, there's my taxi."
If Angelou is careful in choosing the words she speaks, she doesn't mince any in her writing. She thought of fictionalizing the part of her life she writes about in the second book of her autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. Ultimately, though, "I couldn't do it," she says. Angelou wasn't eager to let people know she had been a prostitute, but she wanted to tell the truth. "A lot of people say, I've never done anything wrong they have no skeletons in their closets, maybe even no closets. I want people to know me. I'm not going to draw any lines."
By baring all in her autobiographies, Angelou wants people to know, as she says, "You may encounter many defeats, but don't be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter some defeats it makes you who you are and [helps you] know what you can take." You couldn't exactly call Dr. Angelou defeated. Since 1964, she has been nominated for the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, a Tony and an Emmy. She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album and over 30 honorary degrees. She wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" for the Clinton presidential inauguration in 1993 and "A Brave and Startling Truth" for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. But she wants A Song Flung Up to Heaven to be the last volume of her autobiography, mostly because what she has done for the past 34 years is write. The book ends in 1968 with Angelou beginning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
"I refuse to write about writing. I don't even know how to do that. I leave that to Marcel Proust," she says and laughs. "I will continue to write essays and of course poetry, but autobiography? This is a good place to end.
"By the time Dr. King was killed, I came to understand a lot of things. I learned I could handle myself. I learned a lot about my own inner strength."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.