Phenomenal Woman, Phenomenal Journey: Dr. Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in a sunny yellow house that is as colorful on the inside as it is on the outside, much like the woman herself. Paintings and flowers and more than 5,000 books fill her home—and her mind, too. When presented with flowers upon our arrival, she immediately recognizes and names the variety, an obscure blossom native to South Africa. Her expansive intellect has room for a lot more than botany. When she quotes Shakespeare, she doesn’t just recite a line or two; she recites half the sonnet. Her journey thus far has covered more than eight decades, but the years have obviously taken nothing away from her intellect or her passion.

Sitting at her kitchen table, a mug of warm coffee in her hands, her emerald green dress contrasting with the soft sandy-rose paint on the walls, one of the country’s most venerated writers tells a story. It’s how she teaches.

“My grandmother [her father’s mother, Annie Henderson, who raised her in Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s] would call to me—‘Sister!’—and I knew from the tone of her voice what was going to happen. There’d be a man or woman coming down the hill to the store. I knew I couldn’t say anything, but I’d sit and listen when she let him in.

“‘Hello, Brother Hudson,’ she’d say. ‘How are you doing today?’

“‘Oh Sister Henderson, I can’t stand this cold weather. It chaffe me and it git me.’

“And my grandmother would look at me as if to say, ‘Did you get that?’

“As soon as the person would leave, my grandmother would say, ‘Sister, there are people all over this world, black and white, rich and poor, who went to sleep when he went to sleep last night, but they never awakened. Their beds have become their cooling boards, their blankets have become their winding sheets. And they’d give anything for just five minutes of what that person is complaining about.’”

Angelou smiles and nods, then sips from her cup of coffee, and adds, “So you can know me as long as you can know anyone, and you’ll never hear me complain. I’ll protest, but I don’t complain. And I encourage women—and men—don’t whine! Whining does nothing to the object of your displeasure. And the worst part is that it lets a brute know there’s a victim in the neighborhood.”

Angelou is too busy to complain, and has been for a long time. Over the last six decades, she has been a writer and a poet, a singer and a dancer, a teacher and a leader (among other things). In the 1960s, she worked with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1971, she became the first black woman to have a screenplay (Georgia, Georgia) produced as a film. In 1981, she accepted the position of Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, a role she still fills to this day. In 1993, she recited a poem at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and in 1998, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame. Over her lifetime, she has written more than 30 books and been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees. She’s been nominated for the National Book Award, the Tony, and the Pulitzer; she’s won three Grammys and been awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. Last November, she was announced as one of the winners of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

That’s quite a list of accomplishments, especially considering Angelou’s humble beginnings. Raised in the South during flagrantly racist times, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After identifying her rapist, who was beaten to death after his one-day stay in prison, young Maya came to the conclusion that her voice had the power to kill, so she embarked on a self-imposed five-year period of silence during which she spoke not a single word, communicating only through a pencil and notebook that her grandmother attached to her outfit each day. As a teen in San Francisco, she dropped out of school. She eventually finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, only a few weeks after graduation. Until her career as a singer, dancer, and actress took off, she worked as a waitress and a cook, a single mother supporting herself and her son.

That’s quite a life, by anyone’s standards.

Was there protesting? Oh, yes.

But victim? No. That one will never make the list. She’s too busy doing other things to complain or be a victim.

More Work To Do

Desite her long list of achievments, Maya Angelou is still as busy as ever. Her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—in part the story of that horrific experience with her mother’s boyfriend—was and remains required reading on many high school and college curriculums. In 1993, Angelou published a collection of essays, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now. Now, more than 40 years after the publication of Caged Bird, her journey continues with the publication of her 31st book, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart.

Released by Random House in December 2010, Great Food, All Day Long was born out of her recent struggles with weight and health issues. Through those struggles, she learned the value of portion control, and her cookbook emphasizes food so flavorful that small portions are satisfying. In this cookbook, good health is as much a priority as good flavor.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

As Dr. Maya Angelou was thinking about what would be a relevant topic for her next book, she realized the answer was right in front of her.

“At one time, I described myself as a cook, a driver, and a writer,” she told Random House. “I no longer drive, but I do still write and I do still cook. And having reached the delicious age of eighty-one, I realize that I have been feeding other people and eating for a long time. I have been cooking nearly all my life, so I have developed some philosophies.”

The result is Great Food, All Day Long, published in 2010 by Random House. Great Food is a cookbook interspersed with Angelou’s musings on life, family, and the importance of healthy and tasty cuisine. The recipes, which span the many diverse cultures in the United States, are for mouthwatering dishes like Braised Lamb and White Beans, All Day and All Night Cornbread, and California Green Chili and Cheese Pie.

The book is about much more than recipes, though. Her intent in publishing a cookbook was to remind readers that eating together is an integral part of family life. As she told NPR recently: “I’m concerned that Americans are losing that place of meeting. There are very few times we can be more intimate as to share food together.”

The Maya Angelou Research Center on Minority Health

In addition to teaching as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest—a position she originally accepted for only one year but enjoyed so much she simply never left—Angelou also serves on the steering committee for the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity (MACHE) at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Simply put, because doctors know less about the prevention, expression, or treatment of diseases in certain groups—African-Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Alaskan Natives—members of those groups are less likely than white Americans to live long and healthy lives.

As William Applegate, M.D., president and dean of the center, says, “What more compelling voice to give credence to this cause than Maya Angelou’s? Both her riveting personal story and her remarkable achievements are testimony that we can overcome great obstacles.”

Opening in 2002, the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity was designed to help find a solution to the inequality of quality care in medicine. One of the most compelling demographic trends in the United States today is the increasing diversity of the population: by 2050, it is projected that the country will be split almost evenly between non-Hispanic whites and all other minority groups. Although the term minority is on the verge of becoming factually incorrect when applied to certain groups, racial and ethnic health disparities still exist and are widespread in some areas.

One of the primary missions of MACHE is to involve more underrepresented groups not only as study participants, but as researchers and practitioners, in both health education and career enhancement. Thus, the center will also seek to foster the creation of programs in minority health education, as well as increasing recruitment efforts to get under-represented minorities into medical schools.

“By serving the minority community, it must be known that the entire community is served,” says Angelou. “One hand washes the other. A healthy minority community bodes for a healthy majority community.”

The See Forever Foundation and Maya Angelou Schools

Angelou’s current projects are not restricted to Wake Forest. She is also deeply committed to the success of the See Forever Foundation and Maya Angelou Schools in Washington, DC.

Founded in 1997 by David Domenici and James Forman Jr., the See Forever Foundation’s mission is “to create learning communities in lower-income urban areas where all students can reach their potential and prepare for college, careers, and a lifetime of success.” The foundation approaches its mission by establishing schools that focus on helping disadvantaged youth in the Washington, DC, area, including youth in the juvenile justice system.

The year the first school opened, the foundation sponsored an essay contest to name the school, and student Sherti Hendrix composed the winning essay, proposing that the school be named in honor of Angelou.

In her essay, Hendrix wrote, “The students of See Forever need a school name that represents the power and the importance of education. I think our charter school should be named after Dr. Maya Angelou. I know that nobody is perfect in this world. But at See Forever, I have learned one thing: You can do whatever you want to do as long as you put your mind to it and work hard to get there! And Dr. Angelou knows this too. She is a bold black sister, and believes in us.”

So in 1998, the Maya Angelou Public Charter School (MAPCS) was incorporated, and Sherti Hendrix was one of the 20 students who made up the inaugural graduating class in 1999. In 2000, after raising $3 million for building renovations, the school moved into the historic Odd Fellows Building, and students from all over the city began applying. In 2004, to meet the needs of a burgeoning student population, the See Forever Foundation opened a second MAPCS campus in Washington, DC, and in 2007 assumed operation of the Maya Angelou Academy in Laurel, Maryland (formerly the Oak Hill Academy), as well as operating its affiliated Transition Center. Both the academy and the center are part of the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a secure facility for committed youth. The academy is the facility’s school, and the Transition Center helps youth move on to the next stage of their life once they’ve been released.

Today the Maya Angelou schools boast a total of two high schools, one middle school, the academy, and the Transition Center, educating an overall student population of 600 to 700 students each year. Given that as many as 50 percent of these students have been expelled from at least one other school during their academic career, and up to 70 percent of students come in to MAPCS functioning three full grade levels behind their age group, it is quite a testament to the schools’ success that 73 percent enroll in college, and 60 percent of those who graduate from high school earn a post-secondary credential.

Lucretia Murphy, J.D., Ph.D., executive director of the See Forever Foundation and MAPCS since 2008, and a MAPCS board member since 2004, attributes much of that success to the inspiration Angelou’s life story represents to the students. She cites the students’ lack of belief in themselves as one of the most prevalent issues they have to contend with.

Says Murphy, “These kids come in saying, ‘I’m poor and black and pregnant and struggling in school. How does anyone think I’m going to succeed out there?’ But Angelou’s personal story—where she came from and what she’s had to overcome—makes it easier for them to believe in themselves. She shows them that their dreams are still attainable.”

Two-thirds of the funding for the schools comes from public charter school funds, with the balance raised from private sources such as corporations, foundations, and individuals. This is another area where Angelou’s presence is indispensable. On May 6, 2011, the foundation will host its 14th annual fundraiser at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Theater, and with Angelou as the keynote speaker, the 1,200-seat theater is expected to be filled to capacity. But Murphy stresses that Angelou’s presence, while instrumental to bringing in big names and big money, is about the students first and foremost.

“Three or four years ago,” says Murphy, “back when we were still holding our fundraiser in one of the school’s auditoriums and it was standing room only, Angelou said to the adults in the crowd, ‘I know some of you paid a lot of money to be here, but I’d like to ask you to back up and let the kids come closer. I’m here to talk to the kids.’ And she’s so authentic with them. She doesn’t come to the school to be emulated or adored; she comes here each year to have one more opportunity to connect with her children, to touch them physically as well as mentally and emotionally.”

Angelou says, “The power of belief in our children—expressed—empowers them, and unconditional love to our children creates courage.”

Mentoring

Asked about the importance of mentors, Angelou talks again about her grandmother, Annie. “At least twice a year, she had this litany of stories to tell me and my brother. It’s how she taught. And one of the things she taught me is that when you get, give; when you learn, teach.

“There’s a statement in the Judeo-Christian bible, by the apostle Paul. The Corinthians had written to Paul and asked, ‘Is it better to speak in tongues or to prophesy?’ Paul’s response was, ‘If you speak in tongues, only God understands you. But if you prophesy, you might benefit the entire community.’ So I try, all the time, to prophesy. That means I can say, ‘I’ve been down that road. If you go there in the dark, on the left-hand side there’s a hole you can fall in and break your foot.’ That’s prophesy. And that’s really mentoring. So tell only the truth. You don’t have to tell everything you know, but you do have to tell the truth as you understand it. And then children can reach between your teeth and find charts, maps to live by. It’s very important to respect and cherish your mentors, and to realize that you are one yourself.”

As much of a priority as children are to her, threads of the conversation frequently come back to her grandmother, who was clearly a major—and lasting—influence. In short, a mentor. When asked about the upcoming award ceremony where she is scheduled to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she gets a slightly dreamy, faraway look in her eyes. Gazing up at the kitchen’s far wall, she gestures to the portraits hanging there: her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, who was a slave. “It will be all I can do to accept that award,” she says softly. “Look at where I’ve come from. Everyone should be aware of where they’ve come from and be grateful. That’s what will allow you to move forward.” DW

Sheila Robinson is the founder and publisher of Diversity Woman. Edmund R. Schubert is an author and editor. His latest book, How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion (Bella Rosa Books, 2011), is a collection of essays about the craft and business of writing fiction, gathered from a group of authors working in a variety of genres.

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