Maya Angelou is with the ancestors. Born in 1928, she died peacefully this morning in her own home. She was 86 years old.
She was a force. A pioneer. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” were staples for many of us black girls and young women as we learned to discover our gifts and our potential. She taught us that our stories and our lives had meaning in a world that didn’t value those stories.
She lived a life without limitation. Poet. Calypso dancer. Actress. Journalist. Streetcar conductor. Activist. Educator. Memoirist. Mother. Daughter. Friend. Humanitarian. Woman of the world. She made it all seem possible.
She was dignity personified. Always regal. Sometimes haughty. Occasionally over the top according to folks who booked her for speeches and who groused about her fees and the special items her contract required. (Was the story about the rider requesting 30 year old cognac true or apocryphal? If Van Halen could ban brown M&Ms in his green room, then Angelou could have something that made her smile whether it was cognac or roses!) That rumor, and the way she carried herself, were the source of caricatures in recent years. How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.
She famously was said to correct people she didn’t already know who addressed her as “Maya.” She quickly informed them: “I am ‘Dr. Angelou’ to you.”
But she also was generous with her time and her encouragement. Her conversation with Dave Chappelle on Sundance’s “Iconoclasts” is classic.
She had earned the right to be haughty and demanding and respected. She was a child of small town Arkansas, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl growing up during the Depression in a very, very racist place that she was worthy, important and talented. Her character had been forged by pain and hardship and moments of unspeakable abuse. And yet she gave voice to the unspeakable so others would have courage.
I can not claim to have known her well, but we met 25 years ago on Alex Haley’s farm during one of his weekend gatherings. At the time he was planning a book and mini-series about my great-great-grand mother, Madam C. J. Walker. Ms. Angelou would have played a composite character of two of Madam Walker’s friends I had discovered in my research about her for my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
One of my favorite memories from that weekend was seeing Ms. Angelou and one of the other guests
jitterbugging while actor Glynn Turman played the harmonica. In that moment, we were transported to a juke joint filled with laughter and delight. We felt the ancestors smiling with us and upon us. I’m imagining them welcoming her tonight with just such a party.