The prolific writer Maya Angelou passed away this week at the age of eighty-six. If you’ve had the privilege of reading any of her novels or poems then you know that she had a courageously open spirit. It’s rare to find individuals who share their lives, mistakes and all, without a hint of vanity. Below you’ll find my personal recollections of Maya Angelou.
Growing up, Maya Angelou was revered in my home. My mother held such adoration for Maya that you would’ve thought the two were related. So, I can’t honestly point to a time when I wasn’t aware of Maya Angelou. In seventh grade, my class recited several of her poems. I was assigned a verse from Still I Rise but it wasn’t until eighth grade that I fully understood the awesomeness of Angelou. I attended a catholic school (with actual nuns) and Sister Mary Therese handed me a list of about fifty books—books that she felt were worthy of reading but the curriculum didn’t have room for them. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was on that list.
I found the beat-up paperback in my mother’s personal collection and studied the cover. The book was clearly older than I, could it really be good? A week later, I’d not only finished I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but Gather Together in My Name and I was working on the third installment in her autobiography series. I remember finishing what was at the time the last book feeling astounded that there wasn’t more. A good ten years had passed in this woman’s life and she dared not tell me about it! I needed to know!
In the absence of more words from the wonderful Maya, I turned to other classics that tackled the difficult question of race in American society. How to Kill a Mockingbird. The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X. By the conclusion of eighth grade I was on my way to becoming obsessed and all through high school, indeed I was. Obsessed with the 1970s and the Black Panthers to be specific. And it all started with Maya Angelou.
My sophomore year in college held one more surprise for me in regard to this wonderful writer. I met her. My boyfriend at the time attended Boston College and she gave a speech there which I was not about to miss. Riveted by every blessed syllable that she uttered, I was a proud groupie. And as she finished with a poem she’d only recently written, the crowd rose to its feet (led by yours truly). I remember feeling the tiniest bit of horror at how fragile she looked, as she was helped down from the stage. For in my mind, Maya was impervious and eternal. And by sheer coincidence her path of departure brought her within inches of my seat on the aisle. As she came closer, tears welled in my eyes and my palms grew numb from clapping. Maya, who easily stood six inches over me, squeezed my shoulder, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Thank you, young person.”
Thank you Maya for sharing your life, your words, thoughts, and lessons with us. We are all the better for it.