& & by Ann M. Colford & & & &

Maya Angelou's basso cantante voice and ageless words of wisdom can bridge the chasms of race, class and gender. She has inspired presidents and students, commanded respect from the powerful, and shared the accumulated wisdom of seven decades of life in her numerous books and articles. This week, she brings her charisma and presence back to this area, as she returns to Spokane on Wednesday to speak at Gonzaga University's Martin Centre.

Maya Angelou's personal story has been told in her series of autobiographical books, beginning with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970. That book, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is at once a warm reminiscence of her early life with her grandmother in rural Arkansas and a recounting of her harrowing rape as a child of eight and her subsequent five years of self-imposed silence. For one who spent such a large part of her youth without speaking, she now inspires millions with her deeply resonant voice, talking about strong women of faith and conviction.

After finishing school at age 15, Angelou moved to San Francisco to live with her mother. In her first job, she was a conductor on the city's legendary cable cars. At the time, in the 1940s, she was the first black woman to hold such a job. In a 1998 interview in the magazine Essence, she related the story of how her mother's encouragement helped her be persistent in the face of repeated attempts to discourage her from even applying for the job. By showing up each day in the personnel office and spending her time there reading Russian literary classics, she wore down the resistance of the secretaries and managers who had refused her an application. Inside of a month, she had the job.

Despite this success, her early adult life presented many challenges. At 16, she gave birth to her son, Guy, and soon after moved out of her mother's home to raise and support her son on her own. She became a nightclub singer and a dancer, touring Europe in the mid-1950s in a production of Porgy and Bess and once dancing with Alvin Ailey. Through her performance contacts in New York, she joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and eventually was tapped by Dr. Martin Luther King to be the northern coordinator for the organization, bringing her international experience to the domestic fight for civil rights. Later, she married a South African activist and freedom fighter and spent several years living in various parts of Africa. She became editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, the only English-language newsweekly in the region, and later taught in Ghana and served as features editor of The African Review.

Angelou came to national prominence in the 1970s after the publication of her first book and her appearance in the groundbreaking television miniseries, Roots, which earned her an Emmy nomination. She continued to publish her books, poetry and magazine articles, earning a reputation as one of the wisest, richest and most thought-provoking voices in contemporary literature, and speaking out for women, children, people of color and the economically disadvantaged. Her reading of On The Pulse Of The Morning at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993 secured her place in the national consciousness and in the pantheon of great American voices. In the years since then, she has become one of the most sought-after speakers in the country.

Her 1993 book, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now, represented a departure, even for the versatile Angelou, by moving away from the autobiography and poetry of her earlier volumes. In it, she set out a collection of essays -- some anecdotes, some personal reflections -- that covered topics as diverse as faith, racism, style and grieving. These are the topics she weaves together in her public appearances, as she shares stories and poems with those assembled, like the traditional storytellers from tribal cultures.

In the face of widespread public belief that the youth of this country -- especially poor, black or Hispanic youth -- are in dire straits, Angelou maintains her optimism about their future. In a 1995 interview that appeared in the May/June issue of Mother Jones, she explained why. "Those black children are the bravest, without knowing it, representatives of us all," she said. "The black kids, the poor white kids, Spanish-speaking kids and Asian kids in the U.S. -- in the face of everything to the contrary, they still bop and bump, shout and go to school somehow. And dare not only to love somebody else, and even to accept love in return, but dare to love themselves -- that's what is most amazing. Their optimism gives me hope."

& & & lt;i & Maya Angelou speaks at Gonzaga University's Martin Centre at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Tickets: $10-$40. Call: 323-3548. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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