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On eve of Charleston visit, Angelou reflects

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YWCA turns 100

Tickets for the YWCA's Signature Centennial Event on Friday at the Clay Center are $50. They are available online at www.theclaycenter.org, or by calling 304-561-3570.

  CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maya Angelou is a presidential adviser, celebrated poet, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist. Schools, libraries and health centers are named after her. She speaks five languages.

Humbly, she calls her life "blessed."

The award-winning poet will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the YWCA in Charleston at the organization's Signature Centennial Event on Sept. 28 at the Clay Center.

"I think we all have to realize ourselves as an impediment of ignorance -- we have to really see that," she said. "I am a human being and no other human being can be less than me . . . a business tycoon in China and a homeless person in Des Moines, Iowa, and a woman in Paris and a man in Ghana. He cannot think anything I cannot think, he can't be more needful, more happy, more sad. Pain attacks him with the same ferocity as me. We are more alike than different."

Being fearful about bringing up sons and daughters in today's world is normal, but not correct, Angelou stressed.

"The world is not any worse now than when you were being raised," she said. "The same abilities to be brutal maintain. Just because we have technology and the conveyances that show us now, at a moment's notice, the cruelties going on in the Middle East or Arkansas doesn't mean they are any worse than those when we were growing up."

She paused and then quietly talked about her own family history.

"I am looking at a photograph of my great-grandmother -- born a slave in this country. The cruelties were the same.

"But my grandmother taught me to be kind," Angelou said. Although she was poor, "she always had a big pot of beans on the stove. When poor people came by the back door, black or white, and were hungry, she always managed to have a tin pan of beans and a bit of cornbread to hand to them. The kindnesses that we were told to share, many people were not told that.

"I just point out to you that now we have men and women from all over the world who preach and teach and encourage us toward peace. It hasn't happened yet, but they are trying."

At one point in the Gazette-Mail's telephone interview with Angelou, the phone went dead. When she came back on the phone, she laughed about the woes of technology.

Angelou also laughed when she was told that a Google search of her name turned up 11,200,000 results in 0.14 seconds.

"Well, I'm grateful. I believe in kindness, fair play, generosity. People like me and find that I am of help, and when they come to hear me and they read my books and they watch me, that's a great blessing to me that I'm doing what I was put here to do."

Angelou -- who visited Charleston more than a decade ago for the Festival of Ideas sponsored by West Virginia University and The Charleston Gazette -- is a Renaissance woman by every description. She recently received a BET award, presented to her by first lady Michelle Obama. When she talks of her friends, they include entertainment legends Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones.

Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, she's the mother of one son, Guy, born a few weeks after her high school graduation. In contrast, her grandson graduated from Georgetown University in July with a master's degree in international business.

Her upbringing was humble and fraught with racial discrimination, in St. Louis and Stamps, Ark. She studied dance on a scholarship in San Francisco as a youth, and dropped out at 14 to become that city's first black female cable-car conductor. Later, after finishing high school, she toured Europe with a production of "Porgy and Bess," she studied dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey and, in 1957, recorded her first album.

She moved to New York, where she was part of the Harlem Writers Guild and performed off-Broadway. A job as editor of the English-language weekly, The Arab Observer, prompted a move to Cairo in 1960. Next, it was a move to Ghana to teach at the School of Music and Drama and work as feature editor for The African Review and The Ghanaian Times.

Back in the United States, working as northern coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she was devastated in 1968 when King was assassinated on her birthday.

The list of her published verse, nonfiction and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles, including the landmark "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."

Angelou's script for "Georgia, Georgia," the first scriptwriting by a black woman to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She played Kunta Kinte's grandmother in Alex Haley's "Roots." She's served on two presidential committees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and has received three Grammy Awards.

Angelou has received more than 30 honorary degrees and is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

There, she delights in teaching students from varied backgrounds.

"I teach one class: World Poetry and Dramatic Performance," she said. "I ask my students to look at the poetry of the world. We study really intensely and then, at the end of the class, we do a concert for the town.

"I take students undergraduate and graduate and law and medical and it's just wonderful because, many students, have been traumatized because they've been told poetry is difficult!" she said, with a chuckle. "Those teachers, they injure the students. Poetry is written for all human beings."

With a talent for pointing out the obvious that most people don't see, she tells her students that they are not really listening to the music of jazz and rock and country and blues musicians.

"They have those lyrics down, and they don't realize those lyrics are poetry," she said. "Poetry helps us to learn to like ourselves and to be our own best friend and to understand ourselves. People love poetry."

Again, when told she has a knack for putting concepts into simple yet beautiful terms and a grand understanding for human nature, she is humble.

"It's a blessing. If you are 62 and a man born in Yazoo, Mississippi, and Jewish, I know a lot about you and you know a lot about me. I don't know what language you speak, but I can learn it. I don't know what you call god, or if you have a god, but I know that you weep, you laugh, you get hungry, you have feeling for children. If you were a zebra or a flea or a crocodile, I wouldn't know these things."

Angelou isn't reading anything in particular right now, because it is a distraction from her writing.

"Ahhh . . . well, I just sent some books back to my library," she said. "I am writing right now. I sent them back so I would use this yellow pad." And what is she writing?

"Some lyrics for country music. I'm going to send this one I'm working on now to Ronnie Dunn. He's done a video called 'We All Bleed Red,' and he called me and asked if he could use a picture of mine in it. The video is wonderful. I'm in some very high cotton," she said, laughing. "I'm in it with the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa."

Her musical tastes run the gamut -- she tells of Naomi Judd and Martina McBride coming to her Winston-Salem home to sing to her.

But on Saturday mornings, it's European classical.

"It's Chopin. And I like to play it loudly. I'm more a Chopin fan than any other," she said, her voice trailing off. "But then that depends on the time of day, really."

Teaching at Wake Forest is a perfect fit for Angelou, as she is a proponent of liberal arts education.

"I've given the convocation at Duke for 25 years now, and I always tell them, 'At last, you are in the place where you can drop those buckets of ignorance and learn.'"

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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