I called Maya Angelou expecting lament. She was having none of that.
It was a little less than a year ago, after the verdict that set Trayvon Martin's killer free. I was writing a cover story for Newsweek about the chasm between white and black understandings of the Martin case. I had my own understanding, and it was an angry, hurting one. Shattered by the verdict, I understood our country to be in a dismal state.
So I called Dr. Angelou for perspective, and perhaps to validate my own perspective. I had corresponded with her a few times over the years, and crossed paths briefly with her in the White House, when President Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2011. I didn't expect her to remember any of these minor details—one eager, young staffer among thousands. But when her assistant connected me last July, she exclaimed, "Du-boys! I remember you!"
She tended to store things away.
I launched into questions that, looking back, had an edge, a leaning, to them. "How did you feel when the verdict came down ...?" "Why haven't we come further ...?" Questions that probably belied my own pain.
But in response, I could hear what sounded like a wide smile creaking through the phone. Dr. Angelou was of course devastated by the Martin/Zimmerman verdict—but in the protests that swelled in its wake, she saw the future.
"It is not just African Americans who feel belittled and injured,” she told me at the time. “No, the desire to understand what happened, to comprehend, to inform, to ingest what we know to be right has finally spread to people of all different backgrounds and beliefs.”
“These aren’t just black people or white people [in the protesting crowds]—these are right people!" she so lyrically said.
Out of deep injury, Maya Angelou had a way of finding universal hope.
When she was raped by her mother's boyfriend as a child, and then mute for five years after, she discovered her love for literature, and listening, in her own silence silence.
When poverty and desperation drove her to a West Coast brothel, she emerged with a story to tell, and a dance in her feet. She went on to dance calypso at San Francisco's Purple Onion, and formed her own troupe with Alvin Ailey himself—"Al and Rita" they called it.
She met Malcolm X in Accra, and planned a new civil rights effort with him—the Organization of Afro-American Unity—but Malcolm was assassinated soon after. She met Martin Luther King in Harlem, and was planning a march for him years later—when he too was taken away. Each experience—like so many others in her life—left her wounded, weary, adrift. But she shoveled these fragments of coal into her engine, and hotter she burned.
Perhaps more than anything else, Dr. Angelou was a teacher—‘a teacher who writes,’ as she would say.
Burning usually through her pen, which was always mighty, aware. Honed at the Harlem Writer's Guild with the likes of Julian Mayfield and Rosa Guy, she reported for The Arab Observer in Cairo, and The African Review from Accra. And then came her epic memoirs and poetry—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and And Still I Rise and the rest. Writing was still a task for her—years ago she told the Paris Review, "I try to pull the language into such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy." But she did make it look easy—easy, and heavy, and light.
Perhaps more than anything else, Dr. Angelou was a teacher—"a teacher who writes," as she would say. She taught little black girls to do all of the things that no one expects little black girls to do. She taught little black boys to love themselves, and look beyond their own front porch to the hope of a broader horizon. And she taught every single one of us to make good use of pain, and weave that pain in as yet another plot line in our own, triumphant, stories.
One need not be a believer, as I am, to know that Maya Angelou will so fully live on. Every poet who takes the Inaugural stage will hear her voice echoing around the Capitol. Every writer will learn from her prose and process, every actor from her poise, every leader from her titanic heart. And all of us who have ever known sorrow can learn from Aunt Maya the gratefulness with which she approached each day—especially the tough days, the devastating days, the days that seem so dark. And perhaps we will learn to hum this verse of hers, in memory:
I went to sleep last night
And I arose with the dawn,
I know that there are others
Who're still sleeping on,
They've gone away,
You've let me stay,
I want to thank You.
Thank you. Thank you God, for Maya Angelou. And thank you, Maya Angelou, for showing us glimpses of God.