Maya Angelou, a modern Renaissance woman who survived the harshest of childhoods to become a force on stage, screen, the printed page and the inaugural dais, has died. She was 86.
Here & Now’s Robin Young examines the life and legacy of Maya Angelou with poet Kevin Young, who is a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University.
Interview Highlights: Kevin Young
On Angelou’s voice
“I think that’s one of the things we’ll miss most, in the broadest terms, is her voice — both how she spoke and that melodic, yet fierce tone. It had this kind of great depth to it, this undertone — but also, her voice on the page. And I think I remember reading the memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ and it was so powerful — a sort of reckoning and a remedy at the same time. It has that great title, taken from Dunbar…’We Wear the Mask,’ and, you know, taking that and really channeling the feeling of his poems, which had always been held close to African-American writers and the public … and touched a similar kind of nerve about survival. And the voice, again, singing despite it all.”
On her use of words
“I think she had a way with words, of course, both in speaking and especially in that memoir, and I think they were both comforting. I was re-reading ‘And Still I Rise’ and how she talks about, ‘You may tread me in the dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.’ I love that image.”
On overcoming her personal struggles and becoming a champion for others
“I think about the silence that she survived … apparently, it was six years — I think it was one of the more incredible parts of the memoir — and then emerging with that incredible voice. And you can hear that context, you know, working behind that poem in a powerful way. And I think she really gave voice, in the broadest sense, both to poetry as a public forum, but also specifically to the voices of black women, and I think she not just represented that rising spirit, but also embodied it.”
- Kevin Young, author of six poetry collections and editor of five other, and professor of English and creative writing at Emory University. He tweets @Deardarkness.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Her many fans might have felt the earth shift a little today at the news that poet and author Maya Angelou has died at her home in North Carolina at 86. Her first memoir, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," about growing up poor in Jim Crow South was one of the first and only at its time from a black woman's point of view to be read by a white audience. Her poems, including "And Still I Rise," lifted others. Today, President Obama released a statement saying Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time - a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman - referencing her 1978 poem. In 1993, Bill Clinton asked Angelou to become the first poet to read at an inauguration since Robert Frost at JFK's. Here she is reading "On The Pulse Of Morning."
(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "ON THE PULSE OF MORNING")
MAYA ANGELOU: Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister's eye and into your brother's face, your country, and say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.
R YOUNG: Kevin Young is a poet and professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. He joins us to reflect on Maya Angelou's life and legacy. And, Kevin, just - you know, we knew she was frail. But your first thoughts?.
KEVIN YOUNG: Well, I think it's a sad day. We lost a towering figure in Dr. Angelou. And I think everyone's a little bit shaken, as you said.
R YOUNG: Yeah. Well, her fame really came after that 1969 memoir "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" - a piece of work that really resonates with people. It really is quite stunning.
She tells of her childhood, including her rape by her mother's boyfriend. He was tried and convicted but then murdered - people think by her uncles. And she did not speak for the next five years - a young girl - and then found this voice. Tell us what the voice was if you had to describe it.
K YOUNG: Well, I think that's one of the things we'll miss most, in the broadest terms, is her voice, both how she spoke in that melodic yet fierce tone that had these kind of great depth to it, this undertone, but also her voice on the page. And I think - I remember reading the memoir, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," and it was so powerful, a sort of reckoning and a remedy at the same time.
R YOUNG: Yeah.
K YOUNG: It has that great title taken from Dunbar. I think she really...
R YOUNG: Dunbar's poem, yep.
K YOUNG: Yeah.
R YOUNG: Yeah.
K YOUNG: "We Wear The Mask," you know, taking that and really channeling the feeling of his poems, which had always been held close to African-American writers and the public. It was a very public poem - Dunbar.
R YOUNG: Yeah, this is the African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar who...
K YOUNG: Yeah, sorry.
R YOUNG: No, that's OK. She took that great line from him.
K YOUNG: Yeah. And I think she really channeled that feeling and, you know, touched a similar kind of nerve about survival and the voice again and singing despite it all.
R YOUNG: Yeah. And just a little bit on the prose in the memoir, I mean, an incredibly powerful story. But also lines like - well, she described her grandma, mama, with her solid air...
K YOUNG: Sorry.
R YOUNG: I'm sorry? She described her grandma, mama, with her solid air packed around her like cotton. You know, powerful story, but talk about her use of words.
K YOUNG: Well, I think she had a way with words of course, both in speaking and especially in that memoir. And I think they were both comforting. And I was rereading "And Still I Rise" and how she talks about, you may trod me in the very dirt but still like dust I'll rise. I love that image.
R YOUNG: Yeah. In fact, we have some of Maya Angelou reading from her 1978 poem "And Still I Rise." Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "AND STILL I RISE")
ANGELOU: 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. Does my sassiness affect you? Why are you beset with gloom just 'cause I walk as if I have oil wells pumping in my living room. Just like suns and like moons with the certainty of tides, just like hopes ringing high, still I rise. Did you want to see me broken, bowed head and lowered eyes, shoulders falling down like teardrops weakened by my soulful cries? Does my sassiness upset you? (Laughing) Don't take it so hard just 'cause I laugh (Laughing) As if I have gold mines digging in my own backyard. You can shoot me with your words. You can cut me with your lies. You can kill me with your hatefulness, but just like life I'll rise.
R YOUNG: Kevin - Kevin Young, as a young poet, you hear that. Do you say, I quit?
K YOUNG: Well, I think about, you know, the silence that she survived, which you mentioned, and her, you know, apparently it was six years. I think it is one of the more powerful parts of the memoir. And then emerging with that incredible voice. And you can hear that context, you know, working behind that poem in a powerful way.
R YOUNG: You cannot keep me down.
K YOUNG: And I think she really gave voice, in the broadest sense, both to poetry as a public forum but also specifically to voices of black women. And I think she not just represented that rising spirit but also embodied in.
R YOUNG: Well, and as we're now reading the obituaries, which are, you know, hard to grasp, we're learning about this life she had. She was a car mechanic at one point. She wrote about brief stints as a prostitute and a madam. She was a calypso dancer - danced as well with the young Alvin Ailey, a playwright, a screenwriter, an actress, a professor, am editor in Cairo, Egypt, a civil rights activist.
She's written - received numerous awards, even though she never graduated from college, including one for outstanding service to the American literary community. This was last fall at the National Book Awards in New York and stole the show singing this verse from her wheelchair.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2013 NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS)
ANGELOU: (Singing) When it look like the sun will not shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds. Amazing. Amazing.
R YOUNG: Kevin Young, can you, again, sum up the legacy? It's so much more even than the written word. It's the role modeling.
K YOUNG: I think so. She's a Renaissance person, and she really changed this - created this public figure that we'll surely miss.
R YOUNG: People like Oprah Winfrey point to her as someone who changed the way Opera approached her television work, making it more spiritual than it had been before. Others pointing to her directing them. Kevin Young, poet and professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. And by the way, we highly recommend his work as well. Speaking to us about the death of Maya Angelou at the age of 86. Kevin, thank you.
K YOUNG: Thank you.
R YOUNG: And as we said, an eclectic career. So let's hear more of Maya Angelou the singer performing "Run Joe" back in 1957.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN JOE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.