Maya Angelou, the Renaissance woman who assumed roles ranging from poet to calypso singer, for a brief time was also a journalist. Angelou, who died at 86 Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., had her baptism of fire in journalism in 1960.
As Angelou explained on her web page, “In my travels in Egypt, I met a civil rights activist over there named Vusumzi Make. We married and then moved to Cairo, in Egypt. That was where I got my job as an editor for The Arab Observer,” an English-language magazine. Angelou knew nothing about being a journalist, but David Du Bois, a journalist in Cairo who was the stepson of the renowned intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, introduced her to Zein Nagati, president of the Middle East Feature News Agency.
“He was hiring a Hungarian layout artist, and already had twelve reporters working,” Angelou explained in 1981’s “The Heart of a Woman,” part of her six-book series of autobiographies.
“Du Bois said I was an experienced journalist, wife of a freedom fighter and an expert administrator. Would I be interested in the job of associate editor? If so I should realize that since I was neither Egyptian, Arabic nor Moslem and since I would be the only woman working in the office, things would not be easy. He mentioned a salary that sounded like pots of gold to my ears . . . “
Du Bois would tell her, “Girl, you realize, you and I are the only black Americans working in the news media in the Middle East?”
With Du Bois’ help, she weathered the anger of her African husband over accepting a job without clearing it with him. Her next challenge was working with men who had never worked with a woman, except possibly their secretaries, yet were “cultured and capable.” Angelou wrote that she felt like Bre’r Rabbit thrown in the briar patch.
Angelou was expected to cover African affairs and was assigned to a room with a library containing hundreds of books in English. “For two weeks I stayed in the room, using each free moment to cull from the shelves information about journalism, writing, Africa, printing, publishing and editing,” she wrote. “Most of the books had been written by long-dead authors and published years before in Britain; still, I found nuggets of useful facts.
“The arrival of secretaries forced me back into the larger room with my male colleagues, but by that time I had a glimmering of journalistic jargon. I began to combine a few news items taken directly from the Telex, and insert some obscure slightly relevant background information. Then I would rehead the copy and call it my own.
“I stayed at the Arab Observer for over a year and gradually my ignorance receded. I learned from Abdul Hassan how to write an opinionated article with such subtlety that the reader would think the opinion his own. Eric Nemes, the layout artist, showed me that where an article was placed on a page, its typeface, even the color of ink, were as important as the best-written copy.
“David Du Bois demonstrated how to select a story and persevere until the last shred of data was in my hands. [Vusumzi] supplied me with particulars on the politically fluid, newly independent African states. I received a raise from Dr. Nagati, the respect of my fellow workers and a few compliments from strangers. . . .”
Britain’s Guardian newspaper notes, “Maya then spent several years in Ghana as editor of African Review, where she began to take her life, her activism and her writing more seriously.”
Angelou, celebrated as author, poet, educator, producer, actress, filmmaker and civil rights activist, returned to journalism later in life as a documentary filmmaker. Her documentaries included “Afro-Americans in the Arts,” a PBS special that she wrote and produced, and for which she received the Golden Eagle Award.
In a 1988 book, “And Still We Rise: Interviews with 50 Black Role Models,” then-USA Today Inquiry page editor Barbara Reynolds said Angelou’s poem, “And Still I Rise,” inspired the book. Reynolds asked Angelou, “Looking back on your life, what do you feel you have contributed?”
Angelou replied, “What I really would like said about me is that I dared to love. By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings.
“I would like to be remembered as a person who dared to love and as a very religious woman. I pray a lot. I am convinced that I am a child of God. And that everybody is a child of God. Now I blow it a lot. I am not proud of that, but I do forgive myself and try to ameliorate my actions.”
In an interview May 9 at her Winston-Salem home, commentator Armstrong Williams asked Angelou, “What in your life over the decades have made you a better human being, that you can pass on to others?”
“Well I’ve learned among other things, this is just off the top,” she told Williams for his American CurrentSee magazine. “I’ve learned that forgiving is one of the greatest gifts that I can give myself, when I forgive other people. I let them go, I free them from my ignorance. And as soon as I do I feel lighter, brighter, and better.
“I like that feeling, so I don’t carry somebody else’s mistreatment of me around as baggage. That’s one thing that I’ve learned. I’ve learned to laugh, try to laugh as much as I cry. Yes I’m still practicing; I’m working at it. . . .”
WGHP-TV in High Point, N.C., incorporating material from CNN, closed its obituary with a different quote:
“Angelou is famous for saying, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ “
BK Nation Editorial Team: #MayaAngelou: Phenomenal Woman (special tribute of blogs, videos, poems, quotes, a timeline and more)
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute: What journalists can learn about authorship from Maya Angelou
Mary C. Curtis, Washington Post: Maya Angelou tributes take a cue from the poet herself
Mark Dawidziak, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland: Maya Angelou also made contributions in film and TV
Jaime Fuller, Washington Post: What Maya Angelou wrote and said about race and politics
Gautham Nagesh, stiffjab.com: R.I.P. Maya Angelou, 1928-2014