Why Maya Angelou Matters More Than Ever

6 minute read

There was one important rule to keep in mind if you stayed at Maya Angelou’s house: Don’t startle her in the middle of the night. Angelou, who died in 2014 and lived alone in the latter decades of her life, liked to feel safe at night, and for a girl who grew up in the segregated south of St. Louis, Mo., and Stamps, Ark., feeling safe eventually meant sleeping with a gun under her pillow.

That was something Rita Coburn Whack, the co-director of the new American Masters documentary on the life of Angelou, And Still I Rise, had to keep in mind when she would spend nights at Angelou’s home while working on the film. Angelou may have been known to the world for her writing, but she was known to her family and other intimates for her extraordinary cooking. Late at night, long after dinner, Whack would sometimes get a craving for one more taste of that night’s meal—but she’d keep that gun in mind.

“I’d always let her know I was raiding the refrigerator so she’d know it was me,” Whack said before a recent preview screening of the film at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. “You’d risk your life for her shepherd’s pie too.”

That temperamental fulcrum—the pivot point where grit, strength, artistry and the gentle business of nourishing other people achieve perfect balance—may best describe the wonderfully contradictory character Angelou was. And they frame too why both she and this elegiac new documentary matter so much.

Angelou was a force in American arts and letters even before her acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969. She became even more of a global icon when she delivered her celebrated poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Clinton was often jokingly referred to as America’s first black president, but Angelou lived long enough — 86 years — to witness most of the administration of the man who filled that role for real. Mercifully perhaps, she died two years before she could see much of the hope that attended the early days of the Barack Obama presidency fade as a new era of nationalism, factionalism, and racial tension has arisen in America.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton attended the premiere at the Schomburg Center and spoke about Angelou’s legacy and about the reason she was chosen to deliver that 1993 address. “I remember so vividly Bill’s and my conversations about his inauguration,” Hillary said. “It did not take long after we decided that a poet should be at his inauguration to ask Maya Angelou.”

It was not, Clinton made clear, merely that “it seemed so perfect that somebody who had spent those years in Stamps, Arkansas would be on the platform with the new — then young — president from Arkansas.” It was instead more about the great arc Angelou’s life had traveled. Angelou was a poet, yes, but she was also a dancer and a club singer. She was the first female African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She was the editor of an English language newspaper in Egypt. She toured in a national company of Porgy and Bess and appeared in the TV production of Roots.

But she was made legendary by both her poetry and her fearless autobiographies, in which she candidly disclosed such personal crises as her rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend when she was only eight. And Still I Rise, which has already aired on PBS but is still available for streaming and on DVD, captures all of this richly and deeply. Some of its power is in its extraordinary vintage footage. Angelou’s song-and-dance talents are jaw-dropping to people who have only thought of her as a writer. Some of it is in her own evocative words. She describes the rape and how she told her brother about it, resulting in her attacker going to jail — for a single day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, presumably by members of Angelou’s family or friends of the family. She tells how she became effectively mute for five years thereafter. “I thought my voice killed him,” she says.

More importantly, she describes how she awoke to the world of verse and how she used it to express her enduring faith in the American story. In her inauguration poem she laments the human condition:

Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

And yet then, in the next stanza, she writes:

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.

There was no doubt who Angelou’s choice for president would have been in 2016 had she lived. And there was no doubt during the premiere that the person who did become president was very much a presence in the room. When Bill Clinton was quoting wisdom he had learned from Angelou, he included, “When people tell you who they are, you should believe them.” It was met with knowing laughter from the Manhattan crowd at the premiere since it was something he and Hillary said often during the campaign.

But he mentioned something else Angelou said, too: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Sorrow at a 21st-century America torn again by race and gender and ethnicity is a non-partisan thing. Pain, as always, is apolitical. Still, the battles for justice and human dignity that were fought in the last century do not have to be re-fought in this one — even if the lessons have to be relearned. Who Angelou would have voted for if she were alive today is far less important than the truths she would be sharing.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com