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Remembering Maya Angelou’s iconic voice

May 28, 2014 at 6:50 PM EDT
Drawing on a childhood of abuse and segregation, writer and author Maya Angelou moved the nation. Works such as her 1978 poem, “And Still I Rise,” explored the effects of racism and sexism on personal identity, with a voice that married oral and written literary traditions. Jeffrey Brown discusses with Elizabeth Alexander of Yale University why the voice of Angelou resonates so profoundly.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And with us now is Elizabeth Alexander, chair of the African-American Studies Department at Yale University, and herself a prominent poet. She read an original work at President Obama’s first inauguration.

Welcome to you.

So, what made Maya Angelou such a unique voice? What stood out for you?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, University: What I think was extraordinary about Maya Angelou’s voice is that it brought together the literary — you see influences from Shakespeare, from Paul Laurence Dunbar, to all of those books she talked about reading, with the incredible richness of the African-American women’s oral tradition, that mother wit, that deep understanding, that make a way out of no way that has gotten our people so very, very far.

She married those and understood that poetry wasn’t only a written form, but also a form that was meant to be spoken, to be recited, to be sung. I don’t think there’s any writer who had a better understanding of what those two traditions together could make possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when and how did you first connect with her work?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I read her work, I’m sure, when I was a child. I can’t imagine that was ever not there. And I’m sure that I also first came to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

She was a prolific, prolific memoirist. She wrote six memoirs which are now together in a really beautiful Modern Library edition. And those memoirs, her telling her life story and telling the truth about her life, telling the truth about what it meant to go from silence to telling her story, talking about the pain, talking about the struggle, talking about a history of the entire second half of the 20th century in struggle, all of that is in those memoirs.

And I think that that is how most readers came to know her in the first place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and those memoirs, of course, told of a remarkable story, a larger-than-life tale. We listed some of the things she did, and also intersecting with so many important figures and moments in that history.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Yes. And that’s why I mentioned this six volumes all in one, because when you read it through over 1,000 pages, you almost can’t believe the life.

And yet it’s utterly credible, because she had that kind of dynamism, certainly, and that kind of profound understanding of her own voice and that if you, as she said, have a song to sing, you must open your mouth and share it. Who are you not to share that song? And I think that authenticity connected her with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and so many other people who made change.

JEFFREY BROWN: You, of course, shared that experience of writing for and reciting at inauguration. I wonder, did you ever talk to her about it? Did you share that experience with her?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Well, an extraordinary thing happened. I never had the privilege of meeting her.

But a few weeks of before the inaugural, after it had been announced that I was to write the poem, she found me and called me. And the moment I heard that voice on the phone, before she even said her name, I knew that voice, I knew who it was.

And we proceeded to have a very beautiful conversation, which I think for her had a sense not only of kindness — I was in the throes of doing something that seemed impossible, writing that poem — but also a sense of history, a sense of continuity, and a sense that, as an elder, it was for her to make that continuity.

I asked her at the end of the conversation if she was going to come to the inaugural, to Washington. And she said, “Oh, no.”  She laughed. She said: “I have done that. I’m going stay at home. I’m going to open a bottle of wine, and I’m going to enjoy a potage of my own preparation.”  And she said, “I will laugh, I will cry and I will sing.”

So it felt to me like a real benediction.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the wonderful and remarkable life of Maya Angelou.

Elizabeth Alexander, thanks so much.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: My pleasure. Thank you for asking.