Maya Angelou lets her light shine for youth


“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” rang the incomparable voice of Dr. Maya Angelou that filled Orchestra Hall on Friday, March 14. Angelou enthralled audience members for over an hour while recounting the stories of her life, starting with a trip she and her brother made from St. Louis, MO, when they were little more than toddlers.

With nothing more than a tag tied around their wrists directing adult strangers to deliver them to their grandmother’s home in Stamps, Arkansas, they arrived by train at their destination without incident.

Angelou credited the kindness of others “letting their light shine” for directing her path as a child and throughout her life, even leading her to the stage of Orchestra Hall.

During an interview with MSR, Angelou said she never imagined that she would be the person that she is today. “I knew I would be successful,” she said. “I thought I would be a successful real estate broker, and I’d have a briefcase. I’d wear [a] matching purse and shoes, and I’d have those lovely little short leather gloves… It didn’t happen that way.”

Angelou spoke about being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of seven. He was arrested but released the next day and found kicked to death a couple of days after his release. Angelou felt she had spoken his death into existence.

“I had some serious psychological problems. I had stopped speaking when I was around seven and a half and remained what is called a volunteer mute for around six years; but I read poetry and I loved it, and I listened to the poetry in music, the poetry in the spirituals and in the pop songs which I heard.”

Among her favorite poets, Angelou says, are Paul Lawrence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and William Shakespeare, laughingly saying, “whether I understood it or not.”

“I loved Edgar Allen Poe; I like Poe so much I call him Eap [E.A.P.] to myself.

What caused this love of poetry? “I think it was the human voice that led me in my love of [poetry] because I’ve never heard a human voice I didn’t like.”

Besides poetry, she had her grandmother (whom she calls “Momma”) who Angelou said always believed in her. “My grandmother use to tell me, ‘Sister, Momma don’t care what these people say about [how] you must be a idiot, or you must be a moron ’cause you can’t talk.’ [My grandmother] said, ‘Momma know when you and the good Lord get ready, you’re going to be a teacher.’ And I used to think, ‘This poor ignorant woman — for goodness sakes, doesn’t she know I will never speak?’”

Now, Angelou teaches all over the world. After years of silence, “I found that I had left my voice, my voice had not left me,” she says.

Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most banned books in the U.S. because of her descriptions of child sexual abuse. In fact, during 1990-2000 the book ranked number three on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list with reasons listed as “racism, homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group.”

When asked about the banning, Angelou says, “I think it’s terrible to ban any book… Children, should be able to go into a library and read any thing from A to Z and learn what not to like. There is a world of difference between being educated and being trained. And to become educated you have to be open to hear, study and see …and then you can make up your mind.”

Similar to her own experiences as a child, Angelou says that today there is a population of children who are victims of abuse and neglect. She also believes that many parents are not spending time “teaching, loving, guiding, instructing their children. And they use television as a babysitter and so naturally, the children go running crazy and wild in the streets.

“Too many times people just turn away. They see how the children are being harmed and they turn away… On the other hand, there are children who are being found, being supported, being trained being loved into understanding. And I think at some point or another, the adult…whether related or not, has to say ‘I claim this child. I want to be on the cheering-up side; I want to be on the inspiring side.’”

Angelou has been doing her own part in letting her light shine for youth. On Saturday, March 15, she accompanied the Minnesota Orchestra, narrating Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born, for a Target Free Family Concert. And she expressed her excitement over her most recent book, Poetry for Young People, because she feels everyone should be exposed to poetry.

“Poetry meant so much to me as a young person; it really saved my life, I think… I equated poetry with returning to speech, and I now have earned three Grammys for the spoken word. I’m told the only person to ever earn two was Mr. Orson Welles. And so, I have to thank poetry for that.”

After teaching in universities across the globe, writing a poem for President Bill Clinton’s inaugural address, and being asked by the United Nations to write a poem in honor of its 50th anniversary, what does Angelou feel is her greatest accomplishment?

“My son is the best thing I’ve ever done… He’s a wonderful person. A good husband, or so says his wife.”

Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, is both a poet and a novelist, but she says she’s can’t take credit for influencing him to write. She does, however, credit herself for inspiring him to love reading. “I loved to read, and he’d interrupt me all the time. So I taught him to read [at age four] and [I thought] if he liked it, maybe I could get some peace.”

Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to vnash@spokesman-re