You want to think that when a person has lived a robust life, her death won't sting as much. But on Wednesday when I learned of the great poet Maya Angelou’s passing, that life well-lived didn't make me feel any less heartbroken.
One of my first calls was to a dear friend, Rita Coburn Whack, who’s had a close personal and professional relationship with Angelou since 2006 when Rita took a job as Angelou’s producer for her weekly satellite radio show on what was then XM’s “Oprah & Friends” channel.
Through Rita, I felt like I’d gotten to know Angelou a bit more -- beyond the icon, the giant who had written bestsellers, had delivered poems for heads of state, and had been friends with Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Dr. Angelou ministered to me,” Rita told me on Wednesday. “Once, when I was feeling sorry for myself, she told me that I had no reason to do that. She said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ She said, ‘You look down in the mouth.’”
For the longest, Rita sidestepped the issue, but Angelou pressed her about it and finally Rita began to open up.
“When I got ready to tell her, she said, ‘Be quiet. Hush your mouth.’ She said, ‘You’re not grateful. You have a husband who loves you. You have children who love you.’ I realized she had her own way of setting you straight. She was so wise. Once (comedian) Chris Rock finished an interview with her and he said, ‘She sounds like she’s 400 years old.’”
Rita and I both read Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in high school.
But Angelou’s story -- her life -- didn’t really come alive for me until a few years later after I had lived myself and understood tragedy and the way writing can be a balm, can open you up and free you.
By 1997 when I was about to publish my first novel, Angelou was one of the first people who came to mind when it was time for me to contact authors for jacket blurbs. At the time I had no connection to her and my editor thought I was nuts to even try.
When I reached out to Angelou’s assistant, she warned me that her boss had many demands on her time and probably couldn’t get to it.
But as my production deadline drew near, I took a chance and called Angelou at her Winston-Salem, N.C., home. Her voice was unmistakable when she answered her phone. Mine was unrecognizable to me as I gushed about her work and made my case for why I wanted her to read my book with the possibility of providing a quote of praise.
She agreed to read it and a few days later, her assistant faxed this over: “‘Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven’ is about fascinating people during turbulent times. Dawn Turner Trice has written a complicated story, beautifully.” My editor at Random House was overjoyed when she called me. “We got Maya!” she said.
I sent Angelou flowers.
In 2003, I introduced her at a Tribune-sponsored event at Orchestra Hall. She was 75 years old at the time and although some people begin to wilt with age, the 6-foot-tall Angelou appeared luminous and regal. On stage, she sat on a stool by a lectern and cracked open the evening with a Negro spiritual, singing “On my journey now, Mt. Zion ...”
Her stories included one about a crippled uncle who taught her the multiplication tables; a grandmother who helped her carry the pain of molestation; and poets whose verse were lifelines.
Rita said Angelou’s wisdom and poetry came from all she’d been through.
“She was a product of the way her grandmother Annie Henderson had loved her, and the way her mother had loved her,” said Rita. “Sometimes when someone has been hurt deeply, the way she was hurt (during the molestation), some people turn that inward and get angry and others just become indifferent.
“But Dr. Angelou grew from it and was able to share and give love freely.”
Haki Madhubuti, poet and publisher of Chicago’s Third World Press, told me that he met Angelou in the 1970s during the heyday of the Black Arts Movement. He said her autobiography and a later one, “Gather Together in My Name,” influenced his work.
“Her writing sang to me and allowed me to join her family,” he said. “We brought her here to Chicago when I was teaching at Chicago State (University) for one of our early Gwendolyn Brooks writers conferences.
“To show you the power and serious commitment she had, we’d offered her an honorarium, which was almost an embarrassment because by then she could command so much more. But she donated it back to the school.”
Madhubuti said her passing is of the same magnitude as the loss of Brooks and celebrated authors James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston.
“She’s our measurement, our standard,” he said.
Madhubuti is right.
A part of me is happy that Angelou lived a full life. But mostly, I, like many others, will miss her voice, her humanity, her generosity and her kindness.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun