Maya Angelou speaking in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Maya Angelou 1928-2014: An extraordinary mix of innocence and depravity, elegy and celebration

From the archive: Nicci Gerrard on Maya Angelou's second volume of autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, first published in the New Statesman 17 May 1985.

Autobiography can be stranger than fiction, more delightful in its telling and more inspiring in its tale. Maya Angelou's first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was sheer delight. Its sassy, gritty, knock-kneed enchantment with the world in all its colours and its funny, marvelling evocation of childhood's shape, sound and smell burst through the cage of black woman's adversity. The book ended with 16-year-old Maya holding her newborn son in her arms, the world open and unsignposted before her — and readers wanting more.

In its sequel, Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou has lost none of her verve for life, and her almost physical enjoyment of the words that we chew and roll around in appreciation at their unpredictable prescience. But Gather Together in My Name is not simply more of the same. In spite of all the horrors encountered, the pellucid, spontaneous imagination of the younger Maya made the cage into a wide world of sunlight. The prison bars close in during adulthood: natural glee and the courage of hope press up against a difficult world and from their friction Angelou creates a more wisely exuberant self.

Angelou's love of life turns a catalogue of horror into a tale of gutsy survival. The book opens on the war's ending. After the first flush of victory, during which "everybody had soft little preparation-to-smile smiles on their faces" and "Race prejudice was dead", America re-erects old familiar boundaries. Maya herself is 17 — "very old, embarrassingly young, with a son of two months" — and already intimate with a textured guilt, "my familiar, my bedmate". The end of the war is for her a time of shuddering self-doubt; a wide-eyed inconsolable gaze at the real world outside childhood.

She becomes a cook, content among the odorous vapours of onion, sweet pepper and garlic until she falls in love with a stunned abruptness. The transience of passion and pain at its absenc sets up a pattern of impermanence in Maya's life. Travelling to Los Angeles she works in a nightclub and then drifts into managing a brothel. The sprightly hard-boiled tone is spiked by retrospective self-knowledge:

I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, cultural, intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores. I was a waitress and believed myself cleverer than the customers I served. I was a lonely unmarried mother and held myself to be freer than the married women I met.

After a brief and discomforting visit to the slow-speaking, right-thinking Arkansas of her childhood, Maya returns to California to Cook in a greasy, dingy diner, knowing that the rancid cooking oil and the old men's sadness has seeped into her pores. A few months of tap-dancing make only a glorious interlude in her sure decline into the world of narcotics and prostitution. Teetering on the brink of destruction, Maya is given a sudden glimpse into the hidden world of the wretched, into which she is poised to rumble. It is a vision of hell on earth: standing in a hit joint for addicts and watching their salivating, scratching degradation she finally "knew innocence as real as a grain of sand between my teeth". The end of Gather Together in My Name performs an act of redemption upon both life and book. At its moment of crisis Angelou achieves the honed understatement of a deeply-felt truth:

The life of the underworld was truly a rat race, and most of its inhabitants scurried like rodents in the sewers and gutters of the world. I had walked the precipice and seen it all, and at the critical moment one man's generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.

Entering squalid humiliation and returning from it whole and hopeful, Gather Together in My Name binds horror and raunchy delight together through its unique voice. In it, the reverberations of the Black Church's Gospel songs and the syncopated rhythms of jazz converge; the inherited proud tradition Angelou's beleaguered people and the unsentimental isolation of her individual spirit interweave; the natural optimism that chases away shadows is also sharpened into self-lacerating wit. Loving the world, Maya Angelou also knows its cruelty and offers up her autobiography as an extraordinary mixture of innocence and depravity, of elegy and celebration. 

Show Hide image

A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain