On this day in 1928 Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, as Marguerite Johnson. As a child she got the nickname "maya" ("mine") from her brother; she chose the "Angelou" later, an adaptation of her first husband's name, taken at the beginning of her stage career. The title of the first and most famous volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she took from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings,
I know why the caged bird sings!
Angelou said that her remarkable and varied life - prostitute, dancer, actor, writer, activist, educator, academic - has been made possible by a "remedy of hope" made from reading, courage, and "insouciance." The reading began early, as a way to combat the troubles inflicted on her early years -- her parents' divorce, invasive racism, rape at the age of eight, five years of mute withdrawal, motherhood at sixteen. To her grandmother's list of acceptable black authors - Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson - Angelou would secretly add a handful of banned classics:
During these years in Stamps, [Arkansas] I fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. . . . It was Shakespeare who said, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes." It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn't matter to anyone any more.
The courage and the insouciance are chronicled throughout all six volumes of the autobiography. In the recent A Song Flung Up to Heaven -- her last installment, she says, and also titled from the Dunbar poem -- the courage is conveyed through her decision to return to America from Ghana to work with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and her determination to carry on after their murders -- King's on this day in 1968. Among the episodes of insouciance is one encounter between Angelou and her Ghanaian 'husband,' a demanding type who has followed her to Los Angeles despite her forewarnings that she is more interested in being Maya and militant than married. After they had returned from the movies one night, he had sat frowning in the living room "like a Yoruba carving" while she made dinner:
"Dinner is ready."
He looked up at me, his eyes glinting and his face in a monumental scowl.
"Why can't we be like them?"
"Those two actors in the film."
"Doris Day and Rock Hudson?"
"I don't know their names, but why can't we be to each other the way they are?"
"Are you serious?"
"Do you think I am playing?"
"Those are actors. They are not real. I mean, the roles are just roles. . . . You want me to become a perky little blond woman? Is that what you want? . . ."
I picked up my car keys and my purse and went into the kitchen. I took the corners of the tablecloth and let the food and plates and silverware and glasses fall down into the center. I dragged the whole thing to the living room.
"Here's dinner if you want it. I'm leaving."