Maya Angelou, an author more revered than read, passed away at 86 on Wednesday. She is survived by her seven autobiographies.
In addition to Angelou playing Boswell to Angelou’s Johnson, Angelou acted, wrote poetry, danced, and sang. Was she an actress, poet, dancer, or singer? People liked her politics, and, out of ideological solidarity, reflexively praised her talents in multitudinous endeavors. At her most irresponsible, she embraced Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, and Bill Clinton—a mistake for a lady of any age.
“I’m not modest,” Angelou explained last year to the AP. “I have no modesty.” She got to know herself, apparently, after getting to know poetry and politics and songs and stage. She usurped her parents’ privilege by renaming herself after finding “Marguerite Johnson” not quite arresting enough. In this spirit, she insisted that others call her “Dr. Angelou” though she never obtained a college degree.
The doctor without a doctorate became a teacher without students at Wake Forest. “She collects an annual salary well into the six figures, yet presently teaches no classes and has no campus office,” John Meroney, then a senior at the North Carolina school, wrote in The American Spectator twenty-one years ago. “The office listed for her in the Wake Forest telephone directory is a storage closet in a building far from the main part of campus.”
The Clinton Inauguration served as the occasion for Meroney’s, and much of America’s, sudden interest in Dr. Angelou. In homage to his hero John F. Kennedy, who had taken the unusual step of naming an official poet for the occasion of his taking the reins of power, the incoming president had named Angelou his ceremony’s poetess—foreshadowing that 42 was to 35 what Maya Angelou was to Robert Frost.
She began her inaugural poem: “A rock, a river, a tree.” Norton Tennille began his very similar “Outward Bound” poem: “Rock, Rope, River, Hands.” To quote Vanilla Ice, another of the era’s famous rhapsodists: “That little bitty change—it’s not the same.”
Other writers experience the Maya Angelou phenomenon as less cause for amusement than anger. Upon her passing, eulogist Debbie Schlussel tweeted: “Maya Angelou, Racist, US-Hating, Anti-Semitic Nutjob, Most Overrated Crappy Writer, RIH.” It lacks the eloquence of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Others transfixed on a rather pedestrian chain of events: before she hooked up with Bill Clinton she had worked as a hooker. That she was a prostitute doesn’t bother me. I was never her customer. It instead reminds what a remarkable woman Angelou was.
She authored a unique and interesting life. She worked as San Francisco’s first African-American female streetcar conductor in the forties, embarked on an interracial marriage in the fifties, pioneered transforming the autobiographical form into a cottage industry starting in the late sixties (the way J.K. Rowling turned Harry Potter into a cottage industry three decades later), received a professorship sans Ph.D. in the eighties, and completed a journey from prostitute to presidential poet in the nineties. To quote Frost, she trod the road “less traveled by.”
Her greatest performance wasn’t in the miniseries Roots or on the album Miss Calypso. It was playing the character Maya Angelou. There’s a P.T. Barnum quality to Maya Angelou. Convincing the world of your greatness requires a greatness. This is especially true of the mediocre.
Going from rags to riches by conquering the business world serves as one American Dream. A more common, albeit less realized version, involves enjoying a six-figure living from a no-show job.
Her mouth occasionally called the promise of America a big fat lie. Her life begged to differ.