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Maya Angelou Bah Tat

by TeresaSBottaro 

Posted: 06 December 2005
Word Count: 1108
Summary: The African-American author, actress, and civil-rights activist expresses her love of food and the written word at the Ilkley Literature Festival in October.

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There are people in this world who believe if they put their mind to it, they can achieve anything, learn anything and be anything. Such people are few and far between and when they come into one's life, home or town, they bring with them meaning and inspiration.

Such is true of Dr Maya Angelou, poet, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director, who graced Kings Hall's stage last Wednesday night as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival.

Sitting in a barren dressing room half an hour before she is to go on, the leading African-American writer looks calm and collected, though everyone around her is fluttering about and counting the minutes. She is gracious and does not ask for the fuss, but people just do. This is reciprocation in its most natural form.

She is in town to talk about of her new book, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table - A Lifetime of Memories, a collection of anecdotes and recipes from her extraordinary life.

"Food and literature are tied together," she says, speaking of her decision to create the cookbook. "All the arts are tied together so that you can see people describe themselves through the foods they serve just like they can describe themselves by the types of books they write and the music they play and dances they dance. Food helps us to see not only each other but to see ourselves, who we really are, our generosity, our care and carefulness, which are really two different things. It's a wonderful, wonderful art."

She speaks slowly and deliberately, as if to ensure every word that leaves her mouth is vital to the last, even the conjunctions.

A highly respected literary marvel-cum-philosopher in North America, the doctor is best known for her autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Written in 1969, this was the first of six autobiographies that would bring her fame.

But her list of credits does not end there. The 77-year-old is known also for her work as an actress, director, and poet. She worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr as an activist during the American civil rights movement, which was aimed at eliminating racial segregation during the 1960s. She was the first black conductor on the San Francisco street car (tram) system. She has been nominated for numerous prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize (America's top literary award) for writing and composing the screenplay for the 1971 film Georgia, and an Emmy for her role in the 1977 mini series Roots. She was requested by Bill Clinton to write and read a poem at his presidential inauguration, making her only the second poet in US history to do so. She speaks 15 languages, learning each one in a month. And that is only half the list.

One may think someone of such stature would place themselves above all others. But this is not true of Dr Angelou, who believes there are more universal similarities than differences and that people tend to indulge in the latter too much.

"We indulge that but I don't, I won't. I just don't believe that," she says. "I believe we are more alike than unalike and if that is so, then what I know is also what you know, though yours might be dance and mine might be opera or mine might be rock and roll and yours might be quilt making. But the intelligence I bring to it, I don't mean intellectualism, the intelligence I bring to mine and that you bring to yours is exactly the same."

Humility comes with the territory when one is brought up under humbling conditions. Born Marguerite Johnson (the name Maya came from a nickname given to her by her late brother meaning `mine') in St Louis, Missouri and raised in a small, southern American town in the state of Arkansas during the 1930s by her strict but sturdy grandmother, the doctor experienced racial discrimination and extreme poverty during most of her childhood.

She was also raped at the age of eight by her mother's lover, which caused her to stop speaking for a year. It was a love of poetry - and a teacher's knowledge of this - that brought back her voice. She fell in love with the way her teacher's voice "slid in and curved down through and over words" when she read out loud and she wanted to experience the same.

Today, she still preaches the benefits of reading out loud, but most importantly, the need for the world's youngest generation to read in general. An Ofsted report recently revealed one in five children in the UK are leaving primary school without the basic skills in reading and writing.

"I don't mean to lessen the importance of television but what it does is it chews up the incidents, the events for you," she says. "If you're reading a book or a short story where the moon has gone behind the clouds, and there are some rays shining down on the seashore and the ocean is calm and black and there is a light from a lighthouse and somebody is singing from a window about a 100 yards away, you read that and you have to make it up. You have to utilise your brain to fix it, to make it so that you can see it. If the television is on, that does nothing to stimulate the brain, not as much as it needs to anyway."

Everything seems to come naturally to people like Dr Angelou, but she admits she has had a hard time with the most ostensibly simplest things - like writing lines for Hallmark greeting cards.

"It's very hard to write epigrams," she says. "As a writer, I might write ten pages in order to get my point. And I'll continue to distil it and distil it and finally it's 12 lines or 20 lines or six. There's a joke in fact that says a writer had a commission and he wrote to his editor at a magazine and said `I'm sending you 20 pages. If you had given me more time, I could have made it ten.'

"To write greeting cards and things, I would take an idea I had where normally I would use eight to ten pages to flesh it out. I had to adjust that to two lines, to two sentences. And it's so maddening and wonderful and challenging but I love words."

Dr Angelou says she will continue writing, teaching American Studies at Wake Forest University in her hometown of North Carolina, and preaching the importance of literature and literacy.

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