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Maya Angelou

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Essay title: Maya Angelou

when Maya Angelou was a young woman -- "in the crisp days of my youth," she says -- she carried with her a secret conviction that she wouldn't live past the age of 28. Raped by her mother's boyfriend at 8 and a mother herself since she graduated from high school, she supported herself and her son, Guy, through a series of careers and buoyed by an implacable ambition to escape what might have been a half-lived, ground-down life of poverty and despair. "For it is hateful to be young, bright, ambitious and poor," Angelou observes. "The added insult is to be aware of one's poverty." In "Even the Stars Look Lonesome," her new collection of reflective autobiographical essays, Angelou gives no further explanation for her "profound belief" that she would die young.

"I was thirty-six before I realized that I had lived years beyond my deadline and needed to revise my thinking about an early death," she recalls. "With that realization life waxed sweeter. Old acquaintances became friendships, and new clever acquaintances showed themselves more interesting. Old loves burdened with memories of disappointments and betrayals packed up and left town, leaving no forwarding address, and new loves came calling." Now 69, Angelou is the nearest thing America has to a sacred institution, a high priestess of culture and love in the tradition of such distaff luminaries (all of them, hitherto, white) as Isadora Duncan and Pearl S. Buck, with a bit of Eleanor Roosevelt and Aimйe Semple MacPherson thrown into the mix.

"She was born poor and powerless in a land where/power is money and money is adored," the poet Angelou writes in tribute to another astonishing black woman of our time, Oprah Winfrey. "Born black in a land where might is white/and white is adored./Born female in a land where decisions are masculine/and masculinity controls." Angelou's lifelong effort to escape and expose the "national, racial and historical hallucinations" that have burdened black women in America and replace them with a shining exemplar of power, achievement and generosity of spirit is as miraculous as

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