By Carmen Glover
While working as an associate editor for a Brooklyn-based newspaper in 2002, I went to Harlem, New York, to cover the opening of Hue-Man Bookstore, an African-American establishment that was the brainchild of the ex-wives of three former New York Knicks players, including Rita Ewing, the ex-wife of Patrick Ewing. I entered the store and saw rap mogul Jay-Z in a corner talking to then-Knick Charles Smith, while late actor Ossie Davis chatted to his wife Ruby Dee and actor Wesley Snipes held court with his Asian date. And then I saw her. Dr. Maya Angelou was seated regally on a stool, holding a cane, her eyes shrouded by a pair of dark glasses.
I approached her and introduced myself. Then I explained that I just left my daughter upstairs at the Magic Johnson Theatre with friends, to my chagrin. “Go and get her,” Dr. Angelou told me in her rich, firm voice. I didn’t need to be told twice and my daughter, Samara, squealed, “Really?” when I told her who was downstairs. After shaking Samara’s hand and agreeing to pose for a picture, Dr. Angelou issued instructions to my daughter: “Hold your back straight,” she said, as my daughter complied with alacrity, while the photographer who accompanied me on the assignment snapped the picture.
Many people from all walks of life no doubt have personal stories of the moment when they met Dr. Angelou and how enthralled they were by her poise, wit, grace and spirit. Dr. Angelou described being a mother as a blessing and as the world mourns the passing of this literary icon it is important to remember her son and his family in our prayers. Her son, Guy B. Johnson, released a statement on Wednesday morning which read:
“Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8 a.m., EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey last year, he said through a video that he “grew up in her light.” Angelou gave birth to her only son when she was 17. They lived in several cities including Accra in Ghana, Cairo in Egypt, New York and San Francisco.
Dr. Maya Angelou lived a life that was exceptional in its scope, vast in its reach and profound in its impact on her admirers and students of literature across the globe. The first volume of her autobiographical series “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is required reading in schools across the United States, and it details her early life, her childhood trauma and her indomitable spirit that defied challenges and abuse.
She inspired a legion of ardent fans with the lyrical texture of her poetry, the rhythmic flow of her words, the compelling prose of her novels and the sage wisdom inherent in her counsel. She spoke about the joys she experienced as a mother to her only son and the determination that propelled her to achieve professional success.
And along the way she inspired others to follow her path, or carve their own, never losing sight of what is important. When she delivered her rousing inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, we were riveted with wonder, admiration and pride at the beauty evoked by her voice and words.
Media maven Oprah Winfrey has spoken lovingly about Dr. Angelou and shared stories about their friendship, while inviting her to share her wisdom on various episodes of her show over the years. And so as we grieve, it is important to celebrate the life and legacy of a woman who lived fearlessly, powered on by a burning passion to achieve. In a statement about her death U.S. President said:.
“Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time-a brilliant writer, fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman. Over the course of her remarkable life Maya was many things-an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer, but above all, she was a storyteller and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their meaning amidst the clouds and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.”
Yes, Dr. Angelou caused us to aim higher, to reach for more. Born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, she went on to create literary works that resonate across the world but she was not exclusively artistic. She contributed to the civil rights movement by working for both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. She later taught at Wake Forest University and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. During her youth, she was a calypso singer and she claimed Caribbean heritage through her paternal grandfather, who hailed from Trinidad & Tobago.
Brutally raped at age 7, by her mother’s boyfriend, Dr. Angelou stopped speaking after the culprit was found murdered when she revealed his identity to her family. “I thought my voice killed him,” she explained about her self-imposed, five-year silence after the traumatic episode. But her spirit drove her to success and her thirst for knowledge refused to be quenched. As a result, people all over the world were blessed to see or hear her recite some of her powerful works including her spectacular poems: “Phenomenal Woman,” and “I Rise.” In her last Twitter post on Friday, May 23, 2014, she wrote: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.” In expressing his grief at her death, former President Bill Clinton said:
“With Maya Angelou’s passing, America has lost a national treasure. The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace. I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of “On the Pulse of Morning” at my first inaugural and even more for the years of friendship,” He also sent his “deepest sympathies” to her son.
Winfrey, in her statement, covered the trajectory and nuanced complexity of their relationship, which spanned years and experiences that dripped with meaning.
“I’ve been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister and friend since my 20s. The world knew her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. She won three Grammys, spoke six languages. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.”
For many of us, Dr. Angelou’s enduring legacy will be the template she left that defines resilience: the ability to get up and rebound despite struggles, obstacles and disappointment. Her attitude showed the conviction of someone who had things to do, someone whose ambitions and determination propelled continuous movement, someone who set clearly defined goals and tackled them with grit and courage.
Dr. Angelou has been called back home to rest in the arms of her heavenly father but for us who remain, it’s important to take the time to read her works, understand her life and make an effort to emulate her ambition, drive and refusal to offer excuses instead of being completely focused on achieving our goals. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou, your life and legacy will live on through us–OnPointPress.net.
Carmen Glover is an award-wining journalist and editorial director of OnPointPress.net. Follow her and OnPointPress.net on Twitter @OnPointPress_.