The Lighter Side of Maya: How Angelou Celebrated her Later Years

Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou at one of Angelou's birthday parties.

Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou at one of Angelou's birthday parties. (Photo: Vicki Hughes)

I was awestruck the first time I heard Maya Angelou speak. It was during my freshman-year Black History class at UC Berkeley, 1971. She was a poetry speaker substituted at the last minute. Once she started telling her stories of her travels in Ghana, the world, and her life, I was mesmerized, spellbound and inspired. Even though I majored in physiology and later became an optometrist, I took time to read all her books. She had such an integral influence on my life. A dozen years or so later I went to hear her speak at a poetry reading, and gave her a copy of a book of poetry I had written.

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I saw her again at the Black Filmmakers’ Award show. She complimented me on some earrings I had made and said she liked my poetry. I mentioned to her that a friend of hers was my first cousin. She said, “Yes, Don Martin. We’ve been friends for over 50 years!” He’s one of the featured speakers in the documentary about Angelou, called Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. They met when he was in the first troupe of the Alvin Ailey dancers and she was a calypso performer.

A few years after that meeting, Stephanie, one of my best friends, mentioned a possible date with a young man she had met at work. I encouraged her to go out with him, as she wasn’t doing anything but cleaning her house. Later she did go out with him and said she had a nice time and that his mother was someone named Maya Angelou. I said, “Maya Angelou? You better keep going out with him so you can meet his mother! She’s amazing!”

They dated and eventually married. They have been together for over twenty years now.

Dr. Vicki Hughes and Maya Angelou
Dr. Vicki Hughes and Maya Angelou. (courtesy of Vicki Hughes)

During this time Oprah Winfrey wanted to honor Maya by giving her birthday parties. From her 65th birthday to her 85th birthday, every five years she gave an elaborate weekend to week-long party. From a party at the Graylyn Manor in Winston Salem to a Caribbean cruise to the Mayan ruins (because her name was Maya) to a fabulous party at Mar-a-Lago in West Palm beach, home of the 45th president.

Maya had a plethora of wonderful friends. She made everyone comfortable as we shared life lessons, drinks and food she prepared sitting around her dining table. We have became another family of close friends. To this day, I can reminisce with Andrew Young, George Faison, Marciarose Shestack, Howard Dodson, Belva Davis, Don Martin, Dr. Maxine Mimms, Louise Meriweather, and a host of people from all walks of life who came together for their common love of Maya.

Many of us were honored to be invited to her home for Thanksgiving every year up until her recent death. We would have dinner, a barbecue, talent show, church service and a whole weekend of adventures. The talent show might include a soliloquy by Cicely Tyson, singing by the late Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, cellists and virtuoso pianists, comedians, and ordinary folk doing a classical dance. Folks came from all over the world to partake in Maya’s Thanksgiving dinners. Oprah would fly in some years and bring bread pudding cooked by her chef.

Just recently, Maya’s family of friends continued the tradition by attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony of her being the first African-American and second woman to have a building named after her at Wake Forest University. We were able to tour the building this past Thanksgiving and witnessed a rainbow in the clouds hovering right over the building.

I feel so fortunate to have all these memories and photos I’ve taken through the years. It makes me happy to share my joy with folk as Dr. Maya Angelou shared her extraordinary friendship, grace and camaraderie with me.

Below are photos from Dr. Hughes’s personal collection:

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The Lighter Side of Maya: How Angelou Celebrated her Later Years 2 March,2017KQED Arts

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