CA: Maya Angelou's San Francisco Connections

May 29--SAN FRANCISCO -- From attending schools and collecting streetcar fares as a teenager to her friendship with the Rev. Cecil Williams as an adult, the late author and poet Maya Angelou had a number of San Francisco connections.

Ms. Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and spent her first years in Arkansas. At age 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. He was beaten to death after she testified against him, and Ms. Angelou didn't speak for years.

"I was 7 {, and my 7 { year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him," Ms. Angelou said in 1999. "So I stopped speaking for almost six years."

Her grandmother gave the mute child poetry to read, telling her: "Sister, Mama loves to see you read that poetry. You know what poetry will do for you? It will put starch in your backbone."

In 2001, Ms. Angelou spoke about overcoming abuse at the Women in Leadership Summit in San Francisco.

"Courage is crucial because without it, you won't be able to be consistent with your other values," Ms. Angelou said. "I suggest you develop courage the same way you develop a muscle. You develop a muscle by doing small things first."

As a teenager, Ms. Angelou packed up for California to study dance and drama at the short-lived Labor School in San Francisco. She also attended Washington High School. In her classic "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Ms. Angelou wrote of returning home each day to her "Negro neighborhood" from Washington, which existed in an all-white Richmond District enclave.

She also worshiped at Unity San Francisco. Last year, in discussing her spiritual awakening with Oprah Winfrey, Ms. Angelou described herself, still, as a student of the church and recalled the first time a mentor had her read aloud from its "Lessons in Truth" the words, "God loves me."

She repeated it several times before it registered. More than 50 years later, she said, "it still humbles me that this force that made leaves and fleas and stars and rivers and you loves me. It's amazing. I can do anything."

At 14, she dropped out of school to become San Francisco's first African American female streetcar conductor.

"I saw women on the streetcars with their changer belts," she told Winfrey. "That, and they had caps with bills on them. And they had form-fitting jackets. I loved the uniforms. So I said, 'That's the job I want.' "

Rick Laubscher, president of the Muni's historic preservation partner, pointed out Ms. Angelou's role in breaking color barriers for San Francisco transit operators.

"She helped open the door to good, middle-class employment for thousands of African American's who didn't have the opportunity before," he said Wednesday. "That's a much different legacy than her legacy as an author or poet, but an important legacy nonetheless."

Ms. Angelou eventually finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation.

As a young single mother, she supported her son by working as a waitress and cook. However, her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon take center stage.

She landed a gig as a folk singer and dancer at the Purple Onion club in North Beach in 1954. The Chronicle's critic, Luther Nichols, raved about Ms. Angelou's "deep, untrained, vibrant singing voice," and wrote that "the total effect makes it might hard to take your eyes off her."

Her talents would soon take her away from the Bay Area. She toured in "Porgy and Bess" and later moved to New York, where she acted in Jean Genet's "The Blacks."

"I loved the poetry that was sung in the black church: 'Go down Moses, way down in Egypt's land,'" Ms. Angelou told the Associated Press. "It just seemed to me the most wonderful way of talking. And 'Deep River.' Ooh! Even now it can catch me."

It was "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" that propelled Ms. Angelou into literary super-stardom. She was still grieving over the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination when a friend mentioned Ms. Angelou to Random House editor Bob Loomis, who persuaded her to write a book. The book, published in 1970, garnered international acclaim.

She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in the play "Look Away." She directed the film "Down in the Delta," about a drug-wrecked woman who returns to the home of her ancestors in the Mississippi Delta. She won three Grammys for her spoken-word albums and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her contributions to the literary community.

Through the years, she was never completely out of touch with the Bay Area. Among her closest friends here were Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, whom she first met in the 1960s, and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, who is also a poet and activist.

"I think she was a great conductor of a great human orchestra. An orchestra where people broke down barriers," Williams said Wednesday.

The couple last visited Ms. Angelou at her home in North Carolina for her 85th birthday, where they said she was laughing vibrantly despite her health problems.

"She has had one of the greatest impacts I think of anyone," Williams said. "She never forgot where she came from."

In 1995, Ms. Angelou made an appearance that Williams organized at the Fairmont Hotel for then-mayoral candidate Willie Brown.

"It is a delight to be here speaking for Willie Brown, because I am speaking for myself," she told the audience. "It is poetic to be responsible to one's own self, and one's beloved, and one's race, and one's nation, one's city, one's group."

___

Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: esernoffsky@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @EvanSernoffsky

 

 

Copyright 2014 - San Francisco Chronicle

Loading