Though we have lost a mother and a friend, Maya Angelou’s spirit and influence will endure for generations. In an ESSENCE tribute, 11 luminaries salute our treasured heroine and recall dear memories of how Maya touched their lives.
It’s the Journey that Matters
By Marcia Ann Gillespie
We know that death comes to us all. Marguerite Johnson, the woman the world knew as Maya Angelou, never feared the end. She was a woman who refused to be fettered by the world’s narrow dictates about race, gender and sexual orientation; about how Colored girls and Negro women—All women! All men!—were supposed to be and behave. She claimed her right to live in the world, to discover herself, to own her life and to enjoy it.
For 40 years, I was blessed by her friendship. I was barely in my thirties when she extended her hand to me. She invited me to lunch and I was in awe. There I was, practically tongue-tied, sitting across the table from one of my sheroes. And when she told me how much she admired the work I was doing at ESSENCE my spirit leapt, because this tall, elegant, eloquent, beautiful woman embodied the magazine’s raison d’être. Her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, had proven wrong all the people who dismissed and discounted Black women writers. She proved that her words, our words, her story and our stories mattered, that our books could fly off the shelves. Her success paved the way for her sister writers, seeded the ground for ESSENCE; her insights and to-the-bone honesty fueled and informed countless conversations in the magazine’s pages.
Back in the day, Black women’s beauty was routinely denigrated. Maya Angelou showed us that we, in all our shades and shapes, are beautiful, and encouraged us to break those distorted mirrors and see ourselves with fresh eyes. She didn’t look like a White girl lightly dipped in chocolate, nor did she strive to emulate that. She knew that she was beautiful because of the color of her skin, her full nose, her voluptuous lips, her bold butt and broad back, the life-giving bliss between her thighs. And ESSENCE strived to showcase the beauty she saw in us in our pages and on our covers.
It was Maya’s love for this magazine and what we were trying to accomplish that brought her to us. And when Maya embraced you, she made you welcome in her home and at her table. She shared her stories and laughter, celebrated our triumphs, mourned our losses, offered advice. She was the wise elder friend I turned to when my compass failed and I needed to find my true north. I learned to be more gracious and less judgmental by watching and listening to Maya. She was ever the teacher, but never pedantic. She never stopped learning, read voraciously and was eager to share her discoveries with you. She shared those things with the world because she loved us and believed in our capacity to rise.
Years ago, she said, “I’d like to be thought of as someone who tried to be a blessing rather than a curse on the human race.” She was. She is.
Somewhere in the nooks and corners of the globe, someone is reading one of her books, reciting one of her poems, listening to her rich, mellifluous voice as she offers guidance, solace or affirmation. Her words continue to inspire and inform, challenge and change us. She constantly affirms us: Us women, us Black women, us human beings.
Black-Tie and Barbecue
By Rita Dove
Maya and I first met when she came to the University of Virginia to give a reading. A few years later, she rang me up out of the blue. “Rita!” she said. “It is shameful. Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize half a year ago, but she’s yet to be celebrated properly. You have been poet laureate since last fall, and I have not noticed that this was addressed in the Black community. Toni and you need a party. I’ve decided to give you one.”
Now, a party thrown by Maya Angelou exploded every definition of revelry. Guests flew into Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and were whisked by limousine to Maya’s house, where a veritable Who’s Who of Notable Negroes mingled under the tents erected in her backyard: Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, to name a few. There was a formal dress code, yet the menu was boisterously Down-Home, with ribs and okra, fried chicken and biscuits. There were hugs and guffaws, animated gesturing and licked fingers as Maya, resplendent in a gilded purple caftan, moved through the multitudes bearing a tray of barbecue chicken. She had made most of the food herself. Black-tie and barbecue: It was Maya’s way of showing us all how to cherish our roots while keeping our sights on the stars.
To read the full “Remembering MA: Maya Angelou” article, look on pg. 99 of the August 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.