All the tributes to the late Maya Angelou have recalled her perseverance in the face of pain and abuse, her self-taught love of words and skillful use of them, her dignity and versatility and creativity.
But I thought first of her compassion.
I met her more than 30 years ago, when she’d come to Winston-Salem to teach at Wake Forest University. She had agreed to let me visit her house but she wasn’t quite ready when I got there. “There’s coffee in the kitchen,” she said, and I went to have a mug while she finished a task. The elderly man at the kitchen table didn’t introduce himself but lifted an inquisitive eyebrow, so I explained my presence. “Yeah, she’s always a little behind,” he said with a smile.
Once the interview began, I asked about the laconic guy in the kitchen, who acted as if he owned the place.
“That’s my father,” she said.
Her father? The man I’d read about in her autobiographical “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”? The one who abandoned her, took her back, dropped her again, met her as a teenager and then kicked her out because she fought with his girlfriend? The alcoholic who made her drive him back to southern California from Mexico, because he was drunk? I’d have kicked him all the way to Kitty Hawk and then pushed him into the ocean.
“He had no place else to go,” she said, perhaps reading my thoughts from my expression.
I didn’t forget her kindness to a youngish and uninfluential reporter, and I sought her out again 15 years later, after she had directed her only feature film. “Down in the Delta” didn’t do much business in 1998, but it moved me. A struggling, hard-drinking Chicago mother and her two kids spend a summer with Grandfather in the South, and healing takes place all around.
“What do you do when you see someone going hell-bent for the edge of the world?” she asked in our conversation. “I’ve heard about tough love, and it can be brutish. No love at all? Just a license for sadism. How far do you go?”
Like a lot of her work, “Delta” was about forgiving people: forgiving them for the wrongs they’ve done to you or to each other, forgiving yourself for mistakes you wish you hadn’t made.
At the time, the percentage of black directors in Hollywood was less than 5, the percentage of black female directors was less than 1, and the percentage of black female directors over 70 was Maya Angelou.
She had acted off and on for decades but had finally decided she had a vision so strong she had to direct. (The script was by Myron Goble.) Having made her point, she never directed again, though she continued to write and act occasionally.
She ended that interview by giving me two books she’d written for children, “Kofi and His Magic” and “My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me.” I was surprised that she had written for elementary schoolers, but she reminded me that books had nourished her during a solitary youth.
“You know, I have become so much like my grandmother,” she said. “She taught through anecdotes, because that's how illiterate people couch their wisdom. So ... I entertain, but I also offer what Ghanians call ‘deep talk.’ You can understand on the surface, but you can also go deeper and find more.”
At the age of 71, after a bitter youth and bountiful adulthood, she had found that the need for compassion was the message she most wanted to share.