Before Oprah Winfrey became an iconic dispenser of TV healing, Maya Angelou, one of Oprah's BFFs, led a life that exemplified the conversion of poison into medicine. In her many books, including her 1969 bestseller, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Angelou turned negative experiences such as assaults and insults into inspiration. The result has been stratospheric success as a poet, actor and public speaker, not to mention educator, director and playwright.
"We can all do that, if we really decide to be our own advocates," she said recently by phone from her home in Winston- Salem, N.C., adding a caveat: "It's impossible to think you're going to help somebody if you're not able to help yourself. It's like the African saying: 'Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.'"
At 84, Angelou has age-appropriate ailments, including arthritis, which she pronounces as if it were a cartoon villain: Arthur Ritis. And she no longer drives. But her wit remains tack-sharp and she continues to write and speak.
She comes to the Twin Cities on Tuesday for a talk at the State Theatre. Her theme will be courage -- "the courage to be kind, to be courteous, to listen to someone else who may call God a different name than you call God, if she or he calls God at all," she said. "I'm trying to be a Christian, which is like trying to be a Jew or a Muslim or Buddhist or Shintoist, for that matter. It's not something that you achieve, then sit back and be pleased about. It's something that you're always striving for. I'm always amazed when people walk up to me and say, 'I'm a Christian.' I go, 'Already?'"
Up to the moment
Angelou is up on the latest technology, with an iPod that has R&B, classical and country music (she writes country songs). Her Facebook page has nearly 4 million Likes. And she is known for playing card games on her laptops.
She has stayed with the times even though she was born in St. Louis at a time when radio was king. She was an up-close-and-personal participant in many important historical episodes over the past eight decades, as the nation threw off the shackles of segregation. She worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (His assassination on April 4, 1968, occurred on her 40th birthday.)
Angelou's celebrated status also comes from her dozens of books of autobiography, poetry and essays. "Caged Bird," her first autobiography, has sold more than 4 million copies. "The Heart of a Woman," her fourth autobiography, was an Oprah Book Club selection, and poetry collections such as "Still I Rise" and "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die" are taught in schools across the nation. She crafted and memorably read the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the 1992 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, and was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
She also has had a presence behind and in front of the camera, penning the screenplay for "Georgia, Georgia," a 1972 film that was the first written by an African-American woman. She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of a midwife in "Roots," and wrote poems for the 1993 movie "Poetic Justice."
Her experiences have imbued her with both gravitas and wit. In her sonorous speech, she can rattle off stories of the famous with whom she has worked or hung out, including writers Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Angelou worries about the soul of the country. She said that she is concerned that we are sliding back to a benighted era, and pointed to the movement to have stringent voter ID laws and amendments enacted across the nation.
"It reminds me of Jim Crow," she said about the era that she lived through. "In order to vote, you have to have certain types of identification and certain types of documents. There are people who're old who've never had driver's licenses. Some are semi-literate or new Americans. I flinch when I think that they may be kept from" exercising their citizenship rights.
Her latest book
After a childhood trauma involving sexual abuse, Angelou went to Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother, who is a subject in her latest book, "Mom and Me and Mom."
"She and my uncle would go down to vote every election, and they would be asked questions like how many angels can dance on the head of the pin or how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap. They would come back to the house, humiliated, embarrassed, abased, and yet they would tighten up, straighten up, and go back the following year to try again."
The grandmother is like a guardian angel, Angelou explained.
"She died about 60 years ago but she's with me every day," she said. "She told me, among other things, 'Sister, when you get, give; and when you learn, teach. That'll take you all over the world.'" When Angelou speaks of her grandmother, she begins to wax poetic: "She would say, 'You notice, people around the world have gone to sleep and didn't wake up. Their beds become their cooling boards, their blankets have become their winding sheets, and they'll give anything for just five minutes'" of breath.
Angelou's new book also talks about her mother, whom she described as "heroic." "She never put me down, considering I did what I knew to do at the time, and if I'd known more, I would've done better."
A longtime champion of civil rights, Angelou holds a lifetime endowed professorship at Wake Forest University. She continues the hectic touring schedule that she has maintained for years, including to Minnesota.
"I like the Twin Cities very much -- love it," she said.
Her life on the road, even if not as hectic as it used to be, still thrills her.
"It delights me to meet people who are serious about being better human beings," she said.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390