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when Maya Angelou was a young woman -- "in the crisp days of my youth," she says -- she carried with her a secret conviction that she wouldn't live past the age of 28. Raped by her mother's boyfriend at 8 and a mother herself since she graduated from high school, she supported herself and her son, Guy, through a series of careers and buoyed by an implacable ambition to escape what might have been a half-lived, ground-down life of poverty and despair. "For it is hateful to be young, bright, ambitious and poor," Angelou observes. "The added insult is to be aware of one's poverty." In Even the Stars Look Lonesome, her new collection of reflective autobiographical essays, Angelou gives no further explanation for her "profound belief" that she would die young.
"I was thirty-six before I realized that I had lived years beyond my deadline and needed to revise my thinking about an early death," she recalls. "With that realization life waxed sweeter. Old acquaintances became friendships, and new clever acquaintances showed themselves more interesting. Old loves burdened with memories of disappointments and betrayals packed up and left town, leaving no forwarding address, and new loves came calling." Now 69, Angelou is the nearest thing America has to a sacred institution, a high priestess of culture and love in the tradition of such distaff luminaries (all of them, hitherto, white) as Isadora Duncan and Pearl S. Buck, with a bit of Eleanor Roosevelt and Aimée Semple MacPherson thrown into the mix.
"She was born poor and powerless in a land where/power is money and money is adored," the poet Angelou writes in tribute to another astonishing black woman of our time, Oprah Winfrey. "Born black in a land where might is white/and white is adored./Born female in a land where decisions are masculine/and masculinity controls." Angelou's lifelong effort to escape and expose the "national, racial and historical hallucinations" that have burdened black women in America and replace them with a shining exemplar of power, achievement and generosity of spirit is as miraculous as she says it is, even if one suspects that in "real life" Angelou must be a little hard to take.
"I would have my ears filled with the world's music," she writes, "the grunts of hewers of wood, the cackle of old folks sitting in the last sunlight and the whir of busy bees in the early morning ... All sounds of life and living, death and dying are welcome to my ears." At times Angelou seems more like a blast from Olympus than a woman of flesh and blood. Reading these essays, I found myself longing somewhat guiltily for evidence of smallness on her part, of pettiness, even -- some sign that even an icon as monumental as she is might occasionally allow herself an irritated moment, a lapse into cynicism, or humor that wasn't so resolutely seasoned and wise.
On the other hand, smallness isn't what Maya Angelou stands for. Ordinary is not what she does. In "They Came to Stay," her meditation on "the black woman's stamina," Angelou salutes "the educators, athletes, dancers, judges, janitors, politicians, artists, actors, writers, singers, poets and social activists" among her sisters, all of which (with the possible exception of janitor and judge) she has been herself. Her essays make beautifully easy reading, warm, inspiring and reassuring to a fault. Only a cynic, a smaller mind than Angelou's, could fail to welcome the gifts she offers. -- Salon