While a sophomore in high school, one of my best friends sent me a letter. It contained just two sentences:
You have got to hear a song called “Grandma’s Hands,” by Bill Withers, and you’ve got to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.
At the time I was working at Hakim’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, so I immediately got a copy of the book. I was struck by just how much I related to this little Black girl. I felt I knew her. I cared about her story. It was so affirming. This began my love affair with the writings of Maya Angelou. I read everything she wrote, voraciously.
I met Dr. Angelou several years later, in 1981, when she was a featured writer in a Black Literary series at Philadelphia’s Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum. Eleanor Traylor had put together an amazing roster of great writers, including James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, John O. Killens, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. I brought my little paperback copy of her book of poetry, And Still I Rise. She signed it for me, leaving what I’ve since learned was her trademark: “Joy!”
The next time I saw Dr. Angelou, I was in the live audience during a televised appearance she made on the Maury Povich show in Philadelphia. There were two guests that day. The first, one, a vicious racist, is no longer living, so I won’t mention the name, but after he left, what followed was an amazing example of Dr. Angelou’s wisdom and brilliance.
After the segment was over, she came out and diffused the tension in the studio with a quote from the Afro-Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, also known as Terence: “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” She had nothing more to say about the previous guest. My friends and I were in awe at her calm, dignified demeanor.
Ten years after Dr. Angelou signed my book, we met again. This time, it was at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It was during this time that the famous photograph of she and Amiri Baraka dancing was taken by New York Times photographer Chester Higgins. I was standing there, just to the left of the camera’s lens. The festivities were in honor of Langston Hughes’ birthday and was the one of several times she visited the Schomburg while I was there.
Once, I was sent to the airport to meet her. During her visit, I became her unofficial assistant and “Girl Friday.” She asked me if I had any of her books in my office she could use for her reading. Of course I did — the very book she’d autographed for me a decade earlier. Then she asked me to hold her purse while she did her reading, so I accompanied her backstage at the center’s theater.
Noel Pointer was performing, playing his violin with unbelievable passion. Dr. Angelou and I were standing in the wings, dancing and shouting our encouragement to him. I remember thinking, “Wow! I’m standing here, jamming with Maya Angelou!” At the end of his performance, we just looked at each other, and gave each other a high five, shaking our heads in wonder. Brother Noel Pointer passed away shortly after that awesome performance, but it is etched in my memory forever.
Since moving to the Bay Area, I had that little book bound again because I had read it to the point of fragility. In the spring of 2016, when Belva Davis asked my husband to read at a program honoring Dr. Angelou at the Museum of the African Diaspora, I gave him my newly bound book. I noticed the date she’d signed my book. It was on Nov. 18, my husband’s birthday. Kismet? Perhaps.
Given the current political climate, I find myself wondering, “What would Dr. Maya say?” Then I think of her response to hate with a quote from Terence. I remember her beautiful poem, recited at President Bill Clinton’s Inauguration:
On the Pulse of the Morning, with its clarion call for unity, peace, justice and harmony.
I often think about And Still I Rise, which I have read numerous times both privately and publicly, and I feel hopeful, “like Hope springing high.” I remember that we can still rise, above all of the madness we see unfolding, rise above the “bitter twisted lies,” and rise above the fear and mistrust being fomented in America today.
I guess she’s already said what she would say: Get to work, create, and rise, rise, rise above it all.