The first of her seven books of autobiography has been an inspirational bestseller. It covers the years from three to 16, beginning when her parents send her and her brother away to live with their grandparents. The young Maya endures racism, poverty and rape by her mother’s lover; after the rapist is killed, she becomes mute, but later discovers a love of books and her own voice through an inspirational mentor, and becomes the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco. The title comes from a line in African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” – the bird’s song is a prayer for freedom.
“You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,/ You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise…” This is Angelou’s iconic poem: a great shout of defiance that answers darkness with joy and despair with humour (“I laugh like I’ve got gold mines/ Diggin’ in my own backyard… I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs”). It’s both a public protest poem and an intimately personal statement, looking back to her ancestors’ struggle and confidently forward (“I am the dream and the hope of the slave… I rise/ I rise/ I rise”). Nelson Mandela recited it at his 1994 presidential inauguration.
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies./ I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size…” Ideals of beauty have only narrowed since Angelou wrote this jaunty celebration of female power which proclaims, loud and proud, that beauty is so much more than skin deep. “Men themselves have wondered/ What they see in me./ They try so much/ But they can’t touch/ My inner mystery….” Like all Angelou’s poems, one to hear read aloud, or to chant at moments of uncertainty: “I’m a woman/ Phenomenally./ Phenomenal woman,/ That’s me.”
Angelou was a celebrated memoirist and poet by the time this fourth installment of autobiography was published. It covers the years from 1957 and 1962, when Angelou was published for the first time. This was a key time for her: she became increasingly politically active, travelled the world, and met leading black figures such as James Baldwin and Malcolm X. Billie Holiday sings ‘Strange Fruit’ for her, and tells her, “You’re going to be famous. But it won’t be for singing.” The book also dwells on her relationship with her teenage son and the meaning and responsibility of motherhood.
‘On the Pulse of Morning’ (1993)
Angelou recited this poem for the first inauguration of President Clinton in 1993, making her only the second poet to read at a presidential inauguration (the first was Robert Frost). She was, she said, overwhelmed at Clinton’s request, but poured all her thoughts about America into a long poem whose themes and symbols chimed with Clinton’s address. She pictured the earth as “A Rock, A River, A Tree” crying out to humanity that “You, created only a little lower than/ The angels, have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness/ Have lain too long/ Facedown in ignorance…” It was a call for unity from a poet chosen “to bring people together”.
A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
The sixth in Angelou’s series of autobiographies covers the late 60s. Angelou moves back to the States after living in Ghana, and is caught up in public and personal sorrow following the assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King. The book seemed to complete the circle of Angelou’s autobiographical project, taking her up to the moment she sat down to begin the first volume, though she was later to write about her troubled relationship with her mother in Mom & Me & Mom, published last year. Angelou has said that in her books she follows the slave narrativetradition of “speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying ‘I’ meaning ‘we’”. Throughout her literary life, she was speaking for millions.