Near the end of a brilliant Maya Angelou profile (Tuesday, Feb. 21, on PBS), there's a moment that brings things full-circle. A young, black hotel employee, in elegant uniform, tells Angelou about the speech cotests she's won by reciting Angelou's words.
Flash back to the beginning of the dilm, when Angelou described her father as a black man whom Southerners considered "too grand for his skin"; he moved to Los Angeles and became a hotel doorman in elegant uniform. Now his daughter's words had propelled another elegant hotel person. The world changes, lives end, but Maya Angelou's words linger forever. Here's the story I sent to papers.
By Mike Hughes
Maya Angelou had one
of the world's great voices.
It's a voice that
propelled poetry at Bill Clinton's inauguration, that sang on stage
and on film, that offered love and rage from podiums and pulpits. And
for five years, it was totally silent.
That was when she
was 7 and told about the man (her mother's boyfriend) who had raped
her; the man was soon killed and she decided her voice was lethal.
The silence seemed tragic – and maybe wasn't.
It was “combined
with great intake of knowledge, of writing, of reading,” said Colin
Johnson, her grandson and one of the advisors to a compelling
“American Masters” film on PBS.
And it was the
opposite of our overbusy era, when kids have little time to reflect.
Spurred by a
neighbor, the little girl read every book in the black-school library
and every one her grandmother could borrow from the white school. She
memorized Shakespearean plays, 50 sonnets, the great works of
American and foreign authors.
“Her mutism to me
is central to who she is,” Johnson said. “She had a level of
peace and calm.”
And then came
another transformation. Tis deeply pensive person becane an imposing
physical force. Six feet tall, she danced – first at a strip club
(keeping her tiny costume on) and then as a Calypso star.
“A lot of us
didn't know the story of her as a Calypso singer, a dancer,” said
Bob Hercules, co-director of the PBS film, which incluces clips from
the 1957 “Calypso Heat Wave” and 1959 “Porgy and Bess.”
That phase may seem
out-of-sync with her life, but her friend Lou Gossett sees a
connection. “What strikes me about her life is her consistency in
growth .... I remember her dancing the Calypso. I remember her at the
United Nations.... She grew and grew.”
Her childhood was
split between cities (St. Louis, Los Angeles) and Stamps, a tiny
Arkansas time (now with 2,100 people) where her grandmother had the
only black-owned store. She toured as a performer. She met an African
activist and spent years as a towering figure, tooling around Ghana
in a tiny Fiat.
Before and after
that time, she was part of the artistic scene in New York. Gossett
met her doing Jean Genet's “The Blacks,” which bended reality and
gripped playgoers. “Every now and then, they'd faint,” he said.
“I remember a man had a heart attack, because he thought it was
He learned she had
strong artistic and political sides; in New York, she communed with
activists, artists and authors. When Malcolm X was killed, she slid
into a week-long funk. Then her friend James Baldwin forced her to a
congenial dinner with cartoonist Jules Ffeiffer and others.
charmed guests with stories. Ffeiffer's wife called a publisher and
insisted this woman should be writing books. Angelou resisted ... and
then wrote seven autobiographical books and more.
“Here is a woman
who penned 36 books,” said Rita Coburn Whack, who co-directed the
PBS film. “We went over, I'd say, 4,000 photographs (and) upwards
of 150 hours of videotape.”
It was a sprawling
life that included performances ranging from “Roots” to “Sesame
Street,” from a Butterfinger commercial to bringing Tupac Shakur to
tears on the “Poetic Justice” set.
“She was the best
grandmother that ever lived, ... the grandma that had your favorite
dish in the kitchen,” Colin Johnson said. Before her death (in
2014, at 86), she re-connected with everyone.
“My grandma's life
is a call to action,” Colin said. The PBS films “tells a story
about someone who hasn't give up on herself or humanity.”
Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”
-- 8-10 p.m.