Even the stars look lone.., p.1
Even the Stars Look Lonesome, p.1Maya Angelou
This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
EVEN THE STARS LOOK LONESOME
A Bantam Book / Published by arrangement with
Random House, Inc.
Random House edition published September 1997
Bantam trade edition / September 1998
Many of these essays have been previously published in different form.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
BOA Editions Limited: “miss rosie” from Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969–1980 by
Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1987 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted by permission of BOA Editions Limited, Rochester, NY 14604.
Thompson and Thompson: Excerpt of 10 lines from “Heritage” from Colors by Countee Cullen. Copyrights held by the Amistad Research Center, administered by Thompson and Thompson, New York, NY Reprinted by permission of Thompson and Thompson. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and Harold Ober Associates, Inc.: “Minstrel Man” from Collected Poems by Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Rights throughout the British Commonwealth are controlled by Harold Ober Associates, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and Harold Ober Associates, Inc.
MCA Music Publishing: Excerpt from “Key to the Highway,” words and music by Big Bill Broonzy and Chas. Segar. Copyright © 1941, 1963 by MCA-DUCHESS MUSIC CORPORATION. Copyright renewed by MCA-DUCHESS MUSIC CORPORATION. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of MCA Music Publishing.
Reed Visuals: Excerpt from “I Am a Black Woman” from I Am a Black Woman by Mari Evans (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1970).
Copyright © 1970 by Mari Evans. Reprinted by permission of the author.
University Press of Virginia: “Little Brown Baby” from The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar edited by Joanne Braxton, published in 1993. Copyright © 1993. Reprinted by permission of University Press of Virginia.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1997 by Maya Angelou.
Cover photograph copyright © 1988 by Dwight Carter.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-17317
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A House Can Hurt, a Home Can Heal
Godfrey Cambridge and Fame
A Song to Sensuality
They Came to Stay
Mother and Freedom
Art in Africa
Age and Sexuality
Rural Museums—Southern Romance
I Dare to Hope
Danger in Denial
The Rage Against Violence
Art for the Sake of the Soul
Those Who Really Know Teach
Even the Stars Look Lonesome Sometimes
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
My last marriage was made in heaven. The musical accompaniment was provided by Gabriel, and angels were so happy that ten thousand of them danced on the head of a pin. It was the marriage to end all my marriages. My husband had dropped out of architecture school and become a builder. In fact, in Britain, where he had lived, he was called a master builder. We married in Los Angeles, where he bought and rebuilt old houses, then sold them at handsome profits. We then moved to Sonoma County, where he found more old houses to refurbish. He restored a genteel, polished look to old Victorians and modernized 1930s bungalows. After several years of rapturous married life we moved to the Pacific Palisades, into a futuristic condo that thrust its living room out over a California canyon with a daring and an insouciance usually to be found only in a practiced drunk pretending sobriety. There in that very expensive and posh settlement the foundation of my marriage began to collapse.
With all heart-sore lovers I say, “I don’t know what went wrong.” But I suspect it was the house. The living room was two stories high, and I put my large three-by-five-foot paintings on the walls, and upon those vast reaches they diminished and began to look little better than enlarged color posters. I laid my Indian and Pakistani rugs on the floor over the beige wall-to-wall carpeting and they drowned in the vastness of the living room, appearing little more than colorful table mats on a large boardroom table.
Everything was built in—standard oven, microwave oven, grill, garbage disposal, compactor. There was nothing for my husband to do.
Before, when our marriage had shown weakness—as all marriages do, I suppose—I would argue with my husband on his procrastination in taking out the garbage or his failure to separate the cans from the glass bottles, or his refusal to brush the Weber clean and empty the ashes. But, alas, since the house did everything itself, I couldn’t blame him for his inconsequential failures, and was forced to face up to our real problems.
Floundering or not, we still had the ability to talk to each other. I asked what he thought was the matter, and he said, “It’s this damned house. We are simple people and it is too damned pretentious.” (I did question if we were truly simple people. I was the first black female writer/producer at Twentieth Century-Fox, a member of the board of trustees of the American Film Institute, and a lecturer at universities around the world—from Yale to the university in Milan, Italy. He was a builder from London, a graduate of the London School of Economics, the first near-nude centerfold for Cosmopolitan magazine, and formerly the husband of Germaine Greer. Our credentials, good and bad, hardly added up to our being simple people.)
We agreed that the house was separating us. He thought it was time to move back to northern California, where the grass was greener and the air purer, and we could live simpler lives. I would write poetry and he would build ordinary houses.
He went on a quest to the Bay Area and found an Art Deco house in the hills of Oakland with a magnificent view of the Golden Gate Bridge. His happiness was contagious. Our marriage was back on track. We were a rather eccentric, loving, unusual couple determined to live life with flair and laughter. We bought the house on Castle Drive from a couple who had married a year before and had been busy bringing the house back to its original classical three pastel colors. I admit, it was a little disconcerting to find that the couple had divorced before they even moved into the house. But I decided that that was their affair and was not necessarily a bad omen for our new house.
My husband and I moved in. The beautiful parquet floors welcomed my Oriental rugs. In hanging my paintings I had to adjust to some of the round corners, but I adjusted. My oversized sofas were primed to offer comfort to those who wanted to sit and look out over the garden and a
Within a month I realized the house hated me. It was no consolation that it hated my husband as well. I was known as a good cook, and sometimes there were even flashes of brilliance in my culinary efforts. But in that house on Castle Drive, if I made bread or cakes they would inevitably fall into soggy, resentful masses. When I fried chicken, the skin and batter would be crisp and at the bone there would be blood as red as cherries. The king-sized bed we had brought from Berkeley to Los Angeles and back to Oakland fell in the middle of the night without any prompting of activity by the occupants. My drapes, hung by professionals, came off the runners. The doors began not to fit the frame, and my piano would not stay in tune. The house hated us.
My Airedale, Toots, preferred to stay out in the yard in the cold rather than enter the house. We had the bother and the expense of building a doghouse, although the dog had been intended to be house company for me. Within six months my husband and I were hardly speaking to each other, and within a year of moving into that formal architectural edifice we agreed to call a halt to the struggle to save our marriage.
We owned two large houses. I went away for three weeks, asking that when I returned he would be moved into one of them taking whatever he wanted of the furniture, paintings, linens and other things we had accumulated together.
I returned to the house on a dark evening and was reminded of something I had said to an interviewer years earlier. I had been asked what I would like as my last meal if I was going to die. I had replied, “I don’t want to think that far ahead, but if I were going to Mars tomorrow I would like to have hot chicken, a chilled bottle of white wine and a loaf of good bread.” When I went into the darkened house, I was greeted by the aroma of roast chicken. There was a note on the refrigerator that read, “There is a hot chicken in the oven, a cold bottle of wine in the fridge and a loaf of good bread on the cutting board. Thank you for the good times.” Now, that’s the kind of man I wanted to marry and did marry And if it wasn’t for those two damned bad houses, I would still be married to him.
My husband announced that he was going to stay in the Bay Area. I decided that since we had jointly found the best restaurants, the best friends, the best bars, the best parks, it was inevitable that if I stayed there that I would walk into a restaurant one day or into a bar one night and he would be there with my new replacement, or he would walk into a restaurant or a bar one evening and I would be sitting there with his replacement. Our relationship had been too friendly to allow us to risk that sort of embarrassment. So I gave my ex-husband the Bay Area—I gave him San Francisco and Oakland and the hills and the bays and the bridges, and all that beauty. And I moved to North Carolina. I thought I’d find a small, neat little bungalow and I’d step into it and pull its beautiful walls around my shoulders. I thought that was very poetic, and that way I would just sort of muddle through the rest of my life.
However, once I got to North Carolina, I realized that my gigantic old-fashioned furniture would not be accommodated in a bungalow. I also considered that if I moved from a ten-room house in the hills of Oakland to anything smaller, I would be implying, at least to myself, that my circumstances had been reduced. So I started looking for a large house, and I found one.
When I walked into it, the woman who was selling it had the good sense and the wit to be baking gingersnap cookies and fresh bread. The place reeked of home. The aroma reached out to the landing, put its arms around me and walked me through the front door.
I offered a large sum of money in good faith and explained that I wanted to lease the house for a year, and if I didn’t buy the house after that time I would forfeit the good-faith money. The owners said I didn’t need to do that. They had read my work and said they wanted me to have the house, and offered me terms that I found impossible to refuse.
I bought the house, and as I refurbished it, it also molded me. I added a bedroom for my grandson, who had been missing for four years. He was returned as the room was completed. A man whom I had adored from a distance declared his undying love for me.
When I took the house it had ten rooms, and I have added on more. At present it has eighteen rooms. My builder asked me if I was thinking of reaching the next street down from my house. This is no longer my house, it is my home. And because it is my home, I have not only found myself healed of the pain of a broken love affair, but discovered that when something I have written does not turn out as I had hoped, I am not hurt so badly. I find that my physical ailments, which are a part of growing older, do not depress me so deeply. I find that I am quicker to laugh and much quicker to forgive. I am much happier at receiving small gifts and more delighted to be a donor of large gifts. And all of that because I am settled in my home.
My life and good fortune carry me around the world. However, when I am on a plane and the pilot announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our descent into North Carolina,” my burdens lift, my heart is at ease and a smile finds its way all the way across my face. I know that soon I will be in a car that will stop on a quiet street in Winston-Salem, and I will step out and be home again.
What is Africa to me?” asks Countee Cullen in his poem “Heritage,” written in 1926.
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Until a few decades ago the answers to that question might well have included anything from the subhuman caterwauling of Tarzan to Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of the romantic Dark Continent populated with wild animals, white hunters and black bearers. Many black as well as white Americans were equally ignorant of both African history and African culture.
In the days before “Black is beautiful” was a rallying cry, even before the 1954 Supreme Court decision to ban segregation in public schools, I studied dance in New York with the legendary Pearl Primus. Ms. Primus was a social anthropologist, a famous concert dancer and an exacting teacher. On a research visit to Africa she had been given the name Omowale, “child who has returned home.” She came back to the United States with a fierce determination to teach African dance down to the last authentic detail.
After I had studied with her for a year, Ms. Primus, who was not given to even meager compliments, told me that I might, just might, become a good dancer and even a decent teacher. Armed with this gracious commendation, I headed to a Midwestern city that boasted of having a progressive American Negro (the word was acceptable then) cultural center. I was engaged as dance instructor, and lasted two weeks. The black middle-class families whose children were in my class protested in one voice, “Why is she teaching African dance to our children? We haven’t lost anything in Africa.”
There is one major explanation for the old negative image of Africa and all things African held by so many. Slavery’s profiteers had to convince themselves and their clients that the persons they enslaved were little better than beasts. They could not admit that the Africans lived in communities based upon sociopolitical structures no better or worse than their European counterparts of the time. The slave sellers had to persuade slave buyers that the African was a primitive, a cannibal, and richly deserved oppression. How else could the Christian voice be silent—how soothe the Christian conscience?
African history and culture have been shrouded in centuries of guilt and ignorance and shame. The African slaves thems
Save for the rare scholar and the observant traveler, the African at home (on the continent) was seen as a caricature of nature; so it followed that the Africans abroad (blacks everywhere) were better only because of their encounters with whites. Even in religious matters, the African was called a mere fetishist, trusting in sticks and bones. Most failed to see the correlation between the African and his gris-gris (religious amulets) and the Moslem with his beads or the Catholic with his rosary.
How, then, to explain that these people, supposedly without a culture, could so influence the cultures of their captors and even of distant strangers with whom they have had no contact?
Most social dance around the world, if it is not ethnic—polka, hora or hula—can be seen as having been influenced by African movement. Internationally popular music has been molded by the blues, and shaped by jazz. The Beatles gave honor to Afro-American music as the source of their inspiration, and Elvis Presley particularly thanked the old blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup for inspiring his beat and style. The Museum of Modern Art has an exhibit showing the remarkable influence of African sculpture upon the art of Picasso, Modigliani and Klee. International style, which includes fashion, speech and humor, would be wan and weak without the infusion of African creativity.
I lived in West Africa for over four years and frequently encountered behavior I had known in the United States that I had thought to be black American in origin or, at the very least, southern American. I found that Africans in a group, whether related by blood or by marriage, were called by familial names: uncle, bubba, brother, tuta, sister, mama, papa, and I knew that American blacks continued that practice. Reluctantly I had to admit that while the characteristics of Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima were fictional, created in the fantasies of unknowing whites, the appellations Uncle and Auntie had certainly been brought from Africa and planted into the consciousness of the New World by uprooted slaves. Black Americans’ attitudes in churches, their call and response and funeral marches are African carryovers, and herbal therapies are still actively practiced that can be traced back to Africa, their place of origin.
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