Thursday, February 23, 2012

Inside the House of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou in her heavily restored Harlem house.

Poet, educator, author, playwright, activist,historian, producer, actress, director Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time.

Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in Stamps, Arkansas. Here Maya Angelou experienced the brutality of racial discrimination, but she also absorbed the unshakable faith and values of traditional African-American family, community, and culture.

As a teenager, Dr. Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son,Guy, a few weeks after graduation. As a young single mother, she supported her son by working as a waitress and cook, however her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon take center stage.

Maya Angelou's five-volume autobiography commenced with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. The memoirs chronicle different eras of her life and were met with critical and popular success. Later books include All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994). She has published several volumes of verse, including And Still I Rise (1987) and Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1995). Her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die (1971), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Maya Angelou currently owns three homes. One in Winston-Salem, the other two are townhouses in Harlem New York. Maya Angelou has lived in New York many times. She has had apartments in Brooklyn and on Central Park West and Riverside Drive. But in 2003 she decided it was time to buy a brownstone in Harlem. It was to be a retreat from her full-time residence, an 12-room house in Winston-Salem, N.C. This is a neighborhood where ravaged brownstones bought for $67,000 in 1996 sold for $500,000 in 2004. Maya Angelou's property is worth well over $3.4 million today.

Maya Angelou wanted a space in which to entertain her legions of friends in New York. Unlike most second-home owners, she was looking for a getaway to the city, not from it. And she soon found it. This was the first and only house she looked at in Harlem. A four-story brownstone Built in 1881, the house is nearly 4,000 square feet and sits on a historic block of 120th Street in the Mount Morris Park neighborhood, the most-sought-after area in Harlem. It took a gut renovation to turn the shell into the stunning, high-ceilinged home it is today, with five bedrooms, three full bathrooms and two half bathrooms. Her Harlem home is largely decorated with objects of art from Africa and works that reflect the experiences of African-Americans.

Her front parlor is vivid and a little larger than life. Oversize armchairs and couches are upholstered in raw silk in shades of lime, tangerine, cherry, grape and bright yellow. The grouping gives new meaning to the phrase eye candy. It is said that Maya Angelou wanted this room to look like a bowl of summer fruit. The dining room is behind the parlor, dominated by a round glass-topped table that seats 10 in bright red lacquered chairs. Painted clouds drift overhead on the light blue ceiling.

At the back of the house is the breakfast nook. It is sunlit and painted marigold with terra cotta-colored trim. An elegant stairway arises from the front entryway that carries you directly to Maya Angelou's blue master bedroom. On the top floor are a laundry room and the two other bedrooms.

Inside, eye-catching artifacts of rarer quality are on display everywhere. They vary from luminous paintings of African women ferrying babies in slings to charming drawings of little African-American girls wearing yarn ribbons in their hair, resembling illustrations from the 1950s. African masks, quilts, photographs and sculpture sit on tables, hang on walls, line stairways. Collages by Phoebe Beasley are scattered through the rooms.

Her Harlem house is much more than a vacation place or a simple change of scenery. It’s a true second home. In a article written about Maya Angelou's Harlem home she states, “I never agreed with Thomas Wolfe. I never thought you can’t go home again. I’ve been coming home to Harlem for 50 years.”

Maya Angelou’s words and actions continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts.

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.
-Maya Angelou


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