Friday, May 30, 2014

Maya Angelou, a voice for the ages

Posted By on Fri, May 30, 2014 at 10:55 AM

click to enlarge American literary hero Maya Angelou - COURTESY OF "MY HEROES" FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Courtesy of "My Heroes" Flickr Creative Commons
  • American literary hero Maya Angelou


Even through the phone, Maya Angelou's voice flowed like honey dripping from a hive.

Rich, melodic, authoritative without sounding authoritarian, hers was a voice not to be trifled with. It was a voice that commanded - no, compelled - attention.

Angelou had called me because of a mix-up. This was 20 years ago, a heady time for her. Her reading of "On the Pulse of Morning," a popular but less than critically acclaimed poem written specifically for President Bill Clinton's first inauguration, had made her a national, even an international, icon.

One of the organizers of Indiana Black Expo said Angelou had made a commitment to appear at the event and had offered me an interview with her.

In preparation, I reread her memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and read all five of her subsequent volumes of autobiography, as well as much of her poetry. Then the word came that Angelou wouldn't be coming - and she said that she never had made the commitment to come in the first place.

I did a story on the dispute for the newspaper for which I worked and figured that was that. Then the phone rang, and a young woman identifying herself as Angelou's assistant asked if I would be willing to speak with "Ms. Angelou."

Moments later, that voice filled the line. Angelou insisted that she never would betray a commitment "because that would affect my reputation."

In truth, Angelou had a reputation for breaking such commitments. Not long before the screw-up in Indianapolis, she had told a college out west that she was too sick to deliver a commencement address but showed up on Arsenio Hall's show the night she was supposed to arrive on campus.

For that reason, I tended to believe the event's organizer, who worked hard at avoiding a fight with her.

"I'm not dumb enough to tell people Maya Angelou would be coming if she hadn't told me she would," he said. "But I'm also not dumb enough to get into a public argument with a national treasure."

Smart man.

When Angelou and I talked on the phone, I quickly moved past the dispute to ask her about larger questions of truth. As had others who had read her autobiographical series of books, I'd noticed internal contradictions and probed about that.

She answered as an artist would. She wrote not in search of facts, but of truth. She wanted to convey how something felt, what lingered in her memory and what marks the moments of her life left upon her heart.

Angelou's voice conveyed her message with at least as much power as her words did. I remember thinking at the time that this was what God would sound like if the deity chose to speak in the voice of a woman.

Maya Angelou died May 28. She was 86.

She'd traveled far in those 86 years. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, she clawed her way from early poverty through a childhood rape and assorted other personal traumas to speak from the inaugural stage - to speak, literally, as the voice of America. She went from working in her early years at a brothel to dying in an 18-room home in North Carolina, one of several large residences she owned.

Along the way, she became the voice of many Americans who felt disparaged, dispossessed or ignored. She gave voice to their demands for respect, recognition and attention.

I met Maya Angelou a while after we talked by phone. In person, she was impressive, too - tall, graceful (she'd worked as a dancer), with a queenly bearing. We chatted briefly about the phone conversation we'd shared and she moved on.

But a queen is not a god. And I was struck at the time by the way even her regal bearing and powerful personal presence paled in comparison with the force her voice conveyed. Stripped of distractions, that voice seemed like it could move nations and alter destinies.

Maya Angelou's voice, I thought at the time, belonged to the ages.

Now it truly does.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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