I learned with sadness yesterday that Maya Angelou had died. I first learned of her, when I was pretty young, through reading her account of her childhood in the Depression-era South, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). It’s one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read: an at times harrowing tale of grinding poverty, racism, childhood sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy – but even more, a warm, joyous and even humorous work, by a writer of mesmerizing talent. The book shows how Angelou’s poetic gift grew and found nurture in the most difficult of circumstances.
I actually knew only sporadic details of her later life and work as a dancer, actress, poet and author; her best-remembered recent appearance was reading one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. As an artist she was lionized by all the “right” people in society (meaning, of course, the Left people in society).
One aspect of her life that is arousing some controversy today is Angelou’s attitude toward abortion. It is apparently a complex thing. It began with the experience of giving birth to her beloved son at 17. She told the story in her autobiography, but reflected on it again here (source):
The Decision That Changed My Life: Keeping My Baby by Maya Angelou
When I was 16, a boy in high school evinced interest in me, so I had sex with him — just once. And after I came out of that room, I thought, Is that all there is to it? My goodness, I’ll never do that again! Then, when I found out I was pregnant, I went to the boy and asked him for help, but he said it wasn’t his baby and he didn’t want any part of it.
I was scared to pieces. Back then, if you had money, there were some girls who got abortions, but I couldn’t deal with that idea. Oh, no. No. I knew there was somebody inside me. So I decided to keep the baby.
My older brother, Bailey, my confidant, told me not to tell my mother or she’d take me out of school. So I hid it the whole time with big blouses! Finally, three weeks before I was due, I left a note on my stepfather’s pillow telling him I was pregnant. He told my mother, and when she came home, she calmly asked me to run her bath.
I’ll never forget what she said: “Now tell me this — do you love the boy?” I said no. “Does he love you?” I said no. “Then there’s no point in ruining three lives. We are going to have our baby!”
What a knockout she was as a mother of teens. Very loving. Very accepting. Not one minute of recrimination. And I never felt any shame.
I’m telling you that the best decision I ever made was keeping that baby! Yes, absolutely. Guy was a delight from the start — so good, so bright, and I can’t imagine my life without him.
At 17 I got a job as a cook and later as a nightclub waitress. I found a room with cooking privileges, because I was a woman with a baby and needed my own place. My mother, who had a 14-room house, looked at me as if I was crazy! She said, “Remember this: You can always come home.” She kept that door open. And every time life kicked me in the belly, I would go home for a few weeks.
I struggled, sure. We lived hand-to-mouth, but it was really heart-to-hand. Guy had love and laughter and a lot of good reading and poetry as a child. Having my son brought out the best in me and enlarged my life. Whatever he missed, he himself is a great father today. He was once asked what it was like growing up in Maya Angelou’s shadow, and he said, “I always thought I was in her light.”
Years later, when I was married, I wanted to have more children, but I couldn’t conceive. Isn’t it wonderful that I had a child at 16? Praise God!
Originally published in Family Circle, October 8, 2001.
In the April-May 1994 issue of Mother Jones, Maya Angelou signed this statement of the Seamless Garment Network:
We, the undersigned, are committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, the arms race, the death penalty and euthanasia.
We believe these issues are linked under a consistent ethic of life.
We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected.
Interesting that in that statement, Angelou was joined by the Dalai Lama, Nat Hentoff, Martin Sheen, Sargent Shriver and the Berrigan brothers, a lot of “leftist” people or darlings of the left. In the 1990′s you could still find people who might be anti-war as well as anti-abortion, Democrat and pro-life.
But this soon changed. Many Democrats, including pro-life Democrats like Jesse Jackson, paid a high price is personal integrity to change their personal stance to match the party’s. I don’t know for certain what happened to change Maya Angelou’s mind, but in 2008, Catholic St. John’s University in New York refused to invite her as a speaker because of her pro-choice views. She was also a known supporter of Planned Parenthood.
It is sad that Angelou abandoned what her heart and instincts told her. But the good her courageous shouldering of motherhood brought still remains. Many privileged young feminists should take a look at her, and recall that motherhood was no bar to Maya Angelou’s rising in the world. Nor should it be for any woman. Hopefully all women can get behind that.
Update, June 2: I have found and included the date for the Family Circle article. It’s on this page, which also has another very interesting story about Angelou’s respect for life.