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Maya Angelou at the Cheltenham Literary Festival

Reader warning: this is not a balanced review or objective in any way! I will not mask the plain fact that I am an avid fan of Maya Angelou (to the extent that my first born is named after her!) But Maya Angelou is a storyteller and the nature of stories is that they must be passed on ...

Dr Angelou: singer, dancer, actress, activist, poet and writer.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine ...

The dulcet tones of the polymath Maya Angelou sang out across Cheltenham Town Hall and already much of the audience were entranced. Dr Angelou was there to promote her newest release Hallelujah! The Welcome Table. A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes, a book of recipes intermingled with anecdotes from her considerable 77 year past. Far from a Jamie Oliver style cookery session, the book was never even mentioned. Instead we were regaled with stories of Dr Angelou’s undying optimism and courageous journey through life. It seems her spirit and strength can be attributed to a quote she internalised aged 15:

I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.
Terrence, Roman Slave, 154 BC.

From her humble beginnings as chronicled in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou spoke of her love for her fellow man and how each of us needs someone to shine a light upon us. She articulated the black struggle against The Boys - the small town lynch mobs who terrorised her crippled Uncle Willie, forced to seek refuge amongst the carrots and potatoes in the only black-owned store in Stamps. Dr Angelou paid homage to her recently deceased Uncle, and the light he had shined on the lives of disadvantaged black men, who rose to prominence as a successful lawyer and the first black Mayor of the Deep South. All, allegedly as a result of his teachings under the threat of the pot-bellied stove.

Dr Angelou’s address took the audience through a rainbow of emotions: from tears to tumult of laughter: her warmth and connectivity (for me at least) never once faltering. Perhaps the most heart rendering element of her past is the well documented rape aged 8 and the consequences met by the rapist (he was kicked to death the following day). Feeling as though her voice had resulted in his demise, she vowed never to speak again and became an elective mute for the next 4 years of her life. During this time her love of books and poetry was born. She states that Shakespeare was the first white man she ever fell in love with, convinced that he was in fact, an abused black girl.

Her recital of Edgar Alan Poe’s The Raven delivered as a rap (as indeed she had heard it in her own head many years before) enraptured the 200 plus people hanging on her every beat. She elaborated recalling how she’d later heard Gregory Peck also reciting her beloved poem and wanted to shout out: “No, That isn’t how it goes!” Something tells me that even than at a tender age she would have managed to convince the esteemed actor to adopt a Tupac style.

Maya Angelou’s conviction was further exemplified in her retelling of the moment she stood outside of Congress on the first meeting of the United Nations aged 16. Convinced that she was capable of interpreting, therefore commanding the great fees that came along with it. Capable that is – if only she wasn’t female, black, 6ft tall, uneducated, unmarried and pregnant. Still, some 50 years later she was asked to the anniversary to share A Brave and Startling Truth with Heads of State. Now that’s determination at its best.

Dr Angelou: singer, dancer, actress, activist, poet and writer. And inspiration to most of us packed into Cheltenham Town Hall on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. Yes, her light did indeed shine.

-- Donna Stretton (13/10/2005)

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