Dr. Maya Angelou, poet, author, director, activist and actress, spoke to a crowd of approximately 2,000 at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday to benefit the Santa Barbara Eastside Library.
Angelou, whose autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the second-most banned or challenged book in libraries throughout the 1990s, encouraged the audience to look to libraries as a source of light and become a source of light for other people.
“It is important, I think, for each of us to see ourselves as lights, not just as having lights, but being lights,” she said.
Angelou found out the importance of having a “light” years after her mother’s boyfriend raped her when she was 8 years old. She told her older brother, who told the rest of her family. The man was jailed for one day but was found kicked to death four days after his release. Angelou did not utter a word for the next five years.
“The statement so traumatized me that I stopped speaking,” she said. “I thought if I spoke, my mouth would just issue out something that would kill people, randomly, so it was better not to talk.”
She was sent to Stamps, Arkansas – a town “smaller than this stage” – to live with her grandmother, “Mama,” who would help her find her light. With Mama’s patient encouragement, Angelou grew out of her silence and eventually became a novelist and actress honored with over 75 honors and nominations, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die.
“I have talked all over the world. I teach in a number of languages even,” she said. “You see, Mama decided she was going to be a light.”
Mrs. Flowers, Mama’s friend, also became a light in Angelou’s life. She encouraged the silent Angelou to read the books in the library listed from A to B, then B to C and so on until Angelou had read them all.
“I found out if I had it in here,” she said pointing to her head, “if I take it from this book and put it in here, then no one can take it from me. Hot diggety dog! I will have something all my own.”
While growing up, Angelou said she felt the full impact of being poor and black in a Southern town. Lynching was not uncommon, and Angelou had to watch as poor white children taunted her grandmother.
Using a child’s perspective, Angelou wrote about experiences in I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings. The book was nationally recognized for its simple style and unheard of information about Southern behavior after it was published in 1970.
“The fact that [Angelou] started publishing at this crucial point when people aren’t really aware, it caught national attention,” Black studies Lecturer Jane Duran said. “She points out what had been going on, but no one knew what was going on.”
Angelou managed to focus on her education despite the hardships of poverty. She learned multiplication from an uncle who held her by a flaming pot-bellied stove while asking her to recite the multiplication table.
“I learned my times tables exquisitely,” she said, laughing. “And even now, 60-plus years later, I can be awakened after a night of copious libation and loud revelry, I can be awakened at 2 a.m.: How do the twelvsies go? I got the twelvsies.”
Throughout the night, Angelou, a speaker at the 1992 presidential inauguration, was finally brought back onstage for an encore by a standing audience.
Angelou recited the poetry of Langston Hughes, Mary Evans and Carl Dunbar, often swinging her hips or embracing the podium like a lover in the poem. Poetry is another source of light, Angelou said.
“I suggest that you read some African-American poetry because it is so seldom taught, so rarely cherished. And yet it is so fine,” she said. “Each human being has had that sensation of being caged from time to time. We are not saved from being white or black or rich or poor; we’re not saved from being highly educated or illiterate. Each person who breathes has had that sensation of being caged, and from time to time we need to know someone else felt like that. Okey dokey. I’m not by myself. I can get out of this. I may be able to evict myself from depression.”
Poetry helped, Angelou said, when she suffered from depression and needed to comfort her son while doctors removed stitches from his back.
“Poetry can be used; it can be a light. I encourage it to use it,” she said. “You need to know someone was there. Somebody was lonely before you. Someone was called out of her name, before you. Someone was treated badly, before you. Someone has had benign neglect forced upon them before you. And yet, miraculously, someone has survived; and done better than that: thrived. And done better than that: thrived with some passion, some compassion, some human and some style.”