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Maya Angelou celebrates her
80 years of pain and joy

Maya Angelou celebrates her <br />80 years of pain and joy Photo by Robert Deutsch

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — In the dining room of her elegantly restored Harlem town house, beneath painted clouds on a light blue ceiling, Maya Angelou is asked how it feels to be turning 80.

"Exciting!" she says with a broad smile, then adds: "The body knows. The bones don't let you forget."

The woman who defies a simple label — Angelou has been a memoirist, poet, civil rights activist, actress, director, professor, singer and dancer — is getting an early birthday gift.

Two longtime friends and her niece, who is Angelou's archivist, have collaborated on an illustrated book, Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration (Doubleday, $30), a tribute and scrapbook, that will be published Tuesday.

On her birthday, April 4, she'll be treated to a party thrown by one of her best friends, Oprah Winfrey, who tends to think big. When Angelou turned 70, Winfrey hosted a week-long Caribbean cruise for 150 of Angelou's friends.

If Angelou knows what's planned next week, she's not talking. Neither is Winfrey, who wrote a foreword to the new book. Angelou's niece, Rosa Johnson Butler, says all she knows is the party is in Florida, is top secret and "will be magnificent."

Butler says, "When we went on the cruise (in 1998), word got out, and there were crowds and helicopters and all. Dr. A is a celebrity, but she doesn't like that sort of thing."

What she does like is to be called Dr. Angelou. Although she never went to college, she has been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees. Since 1981, she has been a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

She's an American study herself. "I created myself," she says. "I have taught myself so much."

She was raised by her grandmother, "the greatest person I ever met," in racially segregated Stamps, Ark. She has written about being raped at 7 and becoming an unwed mother at 17, and about the friends who changed her life, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin, whom she knew as "Jimmy."

Now, she's a great-grandmother. She has an 18-room house in Winston-Salem and two town houses in Harlem, black America's unofficial capital, which is enjoying a real estate renaissance. One she rents out, the other she uses as an urban getaway, perfect for dinner parties.

"The people have taken Harlem back," she says. "I see a flowerbox in a window, and that tells me, 'Someone is house-proud.' "

Famous friends

Her 12-room town house, which she gutted and restored four years ago, is filled with art she collected in Africa and works by African-American artists Phoebe Beasley and Romare Bearden. In her parlor is a 4-by-7-foot quilt by Faith Ringgold, commissioned for Angelou's 60th birthday by Winfrey.

Angelou's birth date coincides with the anniversary of King's assassination in 1968. For years she didn't celebrate her birthday. She and King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006, would "meet or talk or send each other flowers" on April 4. Each year, she continues to say a birthday prayer, "a prayer for the country."

Angelou met Winfrey about 30 years ago in Baltimore when Winfrey was a local TV anchor begging for a five-minute interview.

In the tribute book, compiled by Butler, Marcia Ann Gillespie, the former editor of Essence and Ms., and Richard Long, a historian at Emory University in Atlanta, Winfrey describes that first encounter:

"I was careful not to take a second more than I asked for. At the end of the five minutes, she inquired with a quizzical smile, 'Who are you, girl?' "

Angelou remembers Winfrey "really listened, and we had a real conversation."

Later, after Winfrey moved to Chicago in 1984, Angelou happened to see her there on the street. She walked up and said, "Hello, Oprah Winfrey."

Angelou says, "She couldn't believe I remembered her name." Angelou invited Winfrey for a weekend at her North Carolina home. They've been friends ever since.

In 1997, Winfrey chose Angelou's The Heart of a Woman, the fourth of her six memoirs, for her book club. They discussed it at a televised pajama party.

They both call their relationship a "sister-mother-daughter friendship."

Angelou had only one child, a son (writer Guy Johnson, 62), "but she treats me and Oprah as the daughters she never had," Butler says.

A life of wonder

Angelou and Winfrey, 54, have gone separate ways in the Democratic presidential campaign. Winfrey drew large crowds when she campaigned for Barack Obama. Angelou has done radio ads and online videos for Hillary Clinton.

Angelou says their political differences haven't affected their friendship: "We've laughed about it. I told her someone complained, 'Our queen isn't backing Obama.' " (Some blacks think of Angelou as a kind of uncrowned royalty.)

Angelou says she has admired Clinton since the early '80s when she was the young wife of the young governor of Arkansas. She has met Obama once, briefly in Washington, D.C.

"I grew up in Arkansas," she says. "I know what it was like. Mean and hopeless. I know how hard the Clintons worked to change all that."

After he was elected president in 1992, Bill Clinton asked Angelou to write and deliver an inaugural poem — something that hadn't been done since Robert Frost played that role for President Kennedy in 1961.

Angelou doesn't question or criticize Obama.

His speech in Philadelphia last week was "brilliant," she says. "The best speech I've ever heard on race relations in the U.S. The problems and answers. What we've learned and haven't learned."

She sidesteps a question about the Democrats' choice between a woman and a black man. "The question is: Who's the best person to be president?" And that Obama and Clinton "are going toe-to-toe, I think it's wonderful."

Angelou, who is 6 feet tall, relies on a cane and is unsteady on her feet.

But her favorite word remains "joy." When she signs her books — she has written 31, poetry, children's and even one cookbook — she adds in artfully old-fashioned penmanship, "Joy!"

She talks about her life in quiet exclamations: "I've conducted the Boston Pops! Imagine that! Me! Maya Angelou! I've sang and danced at La Scala!"

She could go on, but doesn't, merely shakes her head at the wonder of it all.

Her first and best-known book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, describes how, at 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was then murdered by her uncles. Angelou felt responsible and stopped talking to anyone but her brother for five years.

Work and play

Nearly 70 years later, she recalls what her grandmother said about her silence: " 'Sister' — she called me sister — 'Momma don't care what other people say about you. Momma knows when you and the Lord are ready, you goin' to be a teacher.' "

Now, she adds, "I'm not a writer who teaches. I'm a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that."

She describes the joy she finds in a classroom: "I see all those little faces and big eyes. Black and white. They look like sparrows in the nest. They look up, with their mouths wide open, and I try to drop in everything I know."

She has no plans to retire. She teaches one course each semester at Wake Forest. (Currently it's World Poetry and Drama Performance.) She composed a poem for the Summer Olympics, is working on a collection of essays, and hosts a weekly satellite radio show on the Oprah & Friends channel.

She writes on yellow legal pads and says that even after all these years, a clean sheet of paper scares and thrills her: "I see a yellow pad, and my knees get weak, and I salivate. I know that sounds like coyness, but I have less coyness than modesty, and I have none of that." She laughs.

After eight decades, any regrets?

"Oh, yeah," she says, drawing out yeah, as if it were four syllables.

"Regret is a very strong word. I hate it. But I wish I had more time. I would have liked to spend six months on a Greek island, living with the people, laughing and singing and dancing."

But "I work all the time. I don't know how not to work. I'm not complaining. I play hard, too."

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