I learned of her death as I was making breakfast for my son. My eyes welled up with tears as I buttered his toast, unable to grasp the reality that this was the first moment in a world without her. I realized how important she was to me. As I continued our morning routine, I would remember my last moment with her.
In 2007, at a crossroads in my life, I attended a speaker series at the Los Angeles Music Center. It was February 23 and my attendance was part of my new life plan to do the things I enjoyed. I had decided that year to have a child. Not in a relationship, I was comfortable with my decision to pursue my choice of single motherhood, but thought I should take one last chance at “putting myself out there” just in case there was someone willing to share the journey with me.
The speaker that night was Maya Angelou.
From the moment she stepped on stage, she took my breath away. She shared stories of her life, including those that were shared in her 1969 book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Through laughter, song and poem she told stories of her friends Malcolm and Martin. She would perform the poem Phenomenal Woman with a sensuality that would belie her nearly 80 years of age. Never arrogant, but always proud, she talked of her knowing six languages, her honorary degrees and the incredible joys of a life that would never seem possible to a former high school dropout and teenage mother.
I didn’t meet the father of my child, but that night would leave me changed forever.
In 1993, Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd President of the United States. In a historical move, President Clinton asked Maya Angelou to write a poem about the times. It was the first time a poet had been asked to read at inauguration since President John F. Kennedy’s in 1961 when Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright.” For a younger generation of Americans that ushered President Bill Clinton into office, this was Dr. Angelou’s entrance into their consciousness. As she read “The Pulse of the Morning,” I was mesmerized. I knew who she was, but had never heard her read her work. I wanted to hear more. That day I picked up my dusty copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and read it in its entirety.
I would hear her read the poem again that night at the Music Center.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis Missouri on April 4, 1928, Maya was a nickname given to her by her brother Bailey. After her parents’ marriage ended when she was three, she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published in 1969 and chronicles Angelou’s life from that moment until she became an unwed mother at the age of 17. She shared the details of the time in between, splitting her childhood between Arkansas, St. Louis, Missouri and California. She tells of her insecurities growing up feeling ugly, and the indignities of living in the segregated south. She also tells of a return to St. Louis when a life changing event occurred that led to her finding her voice.
At the age of seven, she was molested and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After testifying in court, the boyfriend, a member of the criminal world her mother worked in, was murdered by an angry mob. Upon hearing of his death, she was convinced it was her speaking up that killed him. It was then she decided to stop speaking and would remain silent for the next six years. During that time, she discovered her love of reading and writing. She began to write poetry, honing the craft that would one day bring her international fame.
In her long and storied life, Angelou would conquer many firsts. As a teenager in San Francisco, she became the first black female streetcar operator during World War II. A high school dropout at 14, she later returned to school and graduated a few weeks before giving birth to her son. She would marry Greek electrician and artist Tosh Angelos in 1952 – a time when interracial relationships were quite taboo. During the short lived relationship, Margueritte Johnson would form a dance team with Alvin Ailey and would go to New York to study African dance. When the marriage ended in 1954, she continued to dance professionally in San Francisco, under her new name Maya Angelou.
As she would later say, she created herself.
Her dancing would lead to acting, touring the world in productions of Porgy and Bess and a return to New York, where she would appear both on and off Broadway over the years. Her artistic endeavors, which included songwriting and recording, led to other firsts. She was the first black woman to have a screenplay produced. The soundtrack for Georgia, Georgia, released in 1972, was also written by her. She would go on to earn Tony and Emmy nominations, as well as win three Grammys.
A member of the Harlem Writers Guild, she would use her art as part of her civil rights activism, beginning with her involvement in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which she served as northern coordinator. She and her son moved to Cairo, and later Ghana, where her son would attend college and she would become an editor of an English language paper. It was there that she met Malcolm X and returned to the U.S. to help him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. After his death, she would support the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., who she called “the leader of our time.” His assassination on her birthday in 1968 would result in her not celebrating it for decades.
“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” was published the following year.
Dr. Maya Angelou never went to college, but has received 30 honorary degrees and taught at Wake Forest University. During her last speech at the university, she shared that she always thought she was a writer who taught. After her first course as a professor, she discovered she was a teacher who could write. The poet, author, singer, dancer, songwriter, actress, activist, mother, and teacher has left us with more than 30 titles, including several autobiographies spanning decades that picked up where ‘Caged’ left off.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Angelou is “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” With her passing on Wednesday morning at the age of 86, Dr. Angelou has left us with a treasure trove of moments that will continue to take our breath away. I never met her, but I will always cherish that night I sat in the audience listening to her share her moments. I have since wiped my tears and will follow the advice of poet Nikki Giovanni, who said when speaking of her friend, “Smile when you think of her.”