Backstage at Carnegie Hall, a tall, handsome woman dressed in black sits regally in a velvet-backed folding chair, surrounded by a throng of admirers in evening clothes. Maya Angelou has just helped host a glittering 75th-birthday tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, but the crowd is more dazzled by a previous Angelou appearance.
”The first time I see you is at the inauguration,” says a gray-haired woman in a black fur coat, speaking with a heavy, French-sounding accent. ”You made me cry.”
Angelou, whose arthritic right hand is wrapped in an Ace bandage, puts down her plastic cup of Scotch and reaches for the woman’s hand. ”Best wishes,” she says slowly, in her deep, rich voice. ”What is your language?”
Angelou’s dramatic and moving presence at President Clinton’s inauguration, where she read ”On the Pulse of Morning,” a poem commissioned by the President, has turned the poet and memoirist into a media star. It has also had a dramatic impact on her work — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her five volumes of memoirs, has jumped onto the paperback best-seller lists, and sales of Angelou’s six paperbacks have increased as much as 600 percent. Response to ”On the Pulse of Morning,” a tribute to the ethnic diversity of America, has been so strong that Random House, her hardcover publisher, just released it in a five dollar commemorative edition.
”People say to me, ‘Thank you for our poem.’ That’s what I wanted,” says Angelou. Her verse is also featured as the work of a poet played by Janet Jackson in the upcoming John Singleton movie Poetic Justice; Angelou, who had a small role in the miniseries Roots, has a cameo as Jackson’s aunt.
But it is ironic that Angelou, with a long and distinguished career as a woman of letters, is being lionized as the newly discovered poet of the moment. Though she is certainly a poet (Bantam published Poems, an anthology, in 1986), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has sold more than 2 million copies since it first appeared in 1970. Bird, which describes Angelou’s painful yet triumphant Arkansas childhood, is considered a centerpiece of American autobiography. And with books like The Heart of a Woman (Random House, 1981), she has continued to tell her own remarkable story — she has been, by turns, a singer, a dancer, and a civil rights activist — while weaving in the richness of black cultural life.
Yet the public’s sudden embrace of Angelou, whose appeal cuts across racial, economic, and educational boundaries, has been almost overwhelming. These days, the 64-year-old Angelou, an American-studies professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., is mobbed by teary fans nearly everywhere she goes. The day after the Fitzgerald tribute, she met with a group of awestruck students at New York City’s Pace University before giving a speech there; one young woman was so moved that she wept openly, then began singing a hymn.
”I think my delivery (at the inauguration) had its own impact,” Angelou says. ”Before, I could pass 100 people and maybe 10 would recognize me. Now, maybe 40 percent recognize me. If they hear my voice, another 30 percent do too.”
Such recognition comes at a price, though it is one that amuses Angelou as much as it may unnerve her. Recently, in the Atlanta airport, she was treated more like a rock star than like a famous author. ”(Somebody) got excited,” she says with a laugh. ”’There she is! That’s the poet!’ People started running. I just stopped. Then they all stopped. They were a little ashamed of having lost it for a second.”