The first time I saw Maya Angelou in person was in the late 1990s in New York. Suzanne, one of my best friends, and I had flown to the Big Apple for a weekend that book-lovers (and aspiring authors like us) would die for – getting to meet and fraternize with writers who make you starry-eyed with awe.
We were there for the first Yari Yari conference, an international confab that brought black women writers from across the world to New York University for workshops, poetry readings, literary panels, performances, networking and book-signings. Attending were novelists, scholars, playwrights, filmmakers – and journalists like us.
The talk by Angelou was packed, needless to say. Suzanne and I were like giddy schoolgirls as we looked on from our seats in the back, listening intently at the wise words and sweet lyricism coming from the literary icon. We turned to each other and marveled at the company we were keeping.
Years later in 2010, I was still entranced by Angelou, whose statuesque six feet now was confined mostly to a wheelchair due to heart and lung problems. This time, I got to look into her eyes as she, like a proud mama, gathered together me and 10 other N.C. women in the media for a photo with her. We were to be recognized with an award which bears her name, a Maya Angelou Women Who Lead award, part of a United Negro College Fund annual fundraising event held in Charlotte.
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I was gobsmacked. It’s an almost out-of-body experience to hear someone you’ve held in such high esteem applaud you.
And, that’s the thing about Angelou, who died Wednesday in Winston-Salem at 86. Her triumph over adversity and her gifted writing alone are admirable and inspirational. But Angelou made a conscious and visible effort to reach back, exhort and uplift others, especially women and young people.
That is a rich part of her legacy, and its long-lasting impact cannot be underestimated.
Angelou herself acknowledged her influence on women in her 2008 collection of essays called “Letter to My Daughter,” noting that “I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters.”
One of her most iconic and often recited poems, “Phenomenal Woman,” pays homage to us ladies in the sassy, sparkly fashion that uplifts and inspires as only Maya Angelou can. To wit, in part: “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size. But when I start to tell them, they think I’m telling lies. I say, it’s in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I’m a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”
Throughout her life, in words and deeds, she boosted and encouraged women. “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women,” she once said. Another time, she remarked: “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
Angelou’s own tough early years, captured in her poignant and critically acclaimed 1969 memoir, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” was no doubt a catalyst. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, she was raped at age 7 and a single mother at 16. But undaunted, she turned trials into triumph, becoming a true renaissance woman. A noted civil rights activist, Angelou had a biography stamped with occupations as varied as cable car conductor, cabaret singer, Alvin Ailey dancer, actress, film director, author, poet and teacher.
Her ability to re-invent herself so often – or more precisely to continue to change and grow – is one more thing to admire.
Last June, for the annual Women Who Lead luncheon in Charlotte, I was in the audience again as Angelou applauded the lives and work of other women, and the gathering paid tribute to her. A highlight was actress Lynn Whitfield serenading Angelou with one of my favorite Angelou poems, “And Still I Rise.” The line near the end, “I am the hope and the dream of the slave,” puts a lump in my throat each time I hear or read it.
I have that video serenade captured on my phone as I do Maya Angelou’s words that day. She regaled us with wondrous stories – some humorous and slightly mischievous – and then expounded on courage. “Courage is the most important of all virtues,” she said. “Without courage, you can’t practice any other virtues consistently.”
Courage is something Maya Angelou had in abundance. She was that young girl who grabbed the world by the lapels. And she never let go. May we all follow her example.