Maya Angelou speaking in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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. 

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times