There was little I could physically do after I learned that the greatness that is Maya Angelou made her transition from earthly life to heavenly eternity. I sat. And sat. And sat some more. Whenever I tried to nudge myself back into activity, I stayed stuck, my mind bullying my person to just be still in the moment. I was weighted by the sadness of knowing a woman I’ve admired and doted on from afar for most of my life—even more so since I grew up to become a writer—was no longer here. Even in writing this, there are long pauses when I lean back and stare into space. I’m processing. Mourning even.
I’ll never interview her. Meet her. Tell her how much her work has affected my work and just my me-ness in general. I’m sure she’s heard it thousands, maybe even a cool million times in her day-to-days. But none of those gushing moments that were probably so routine for her have ever come from me. You know how you just want to tell someone you love them? Now I’ll just have to whisper it over a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and hope the literary spirits will carry my adorations up to the sky for her to hear.
In the days since she passed, much has been written about Dr. Angelou’s professional accomplishments, enough to make up four or five lifetimes, her endlessly quotable wisdom and her ability to leverage complex social goings-on with uninhibited artistry. Early in her life, at an age and in an age when many young women were carving their identities for themselves and OKing it with the people around them, she lived, made mistakes, lived, made art, and lived some more.
She was unapologetic even about her single motherhood and stint in prostitution, candid about the decisions that culminated the whole of herself. She was just as much Maya in the moments we want to hush in the retelling of her story as she was in those we want to commemorate and celebrate. That spunkiness, especially in an era pre-dating collective efforts to empower Black women to break molds and shatter stigmas, made her amazing to me. I adore my other heroine, Zora Neale Hurston, for that very same reason.
I remember seeing Dr. Angelou on The Arsenio Hall Show when I was a kid, all 72 inches of her frame drenched in a crimson suit, stately and elegant, particularly as she was juxtaposed against the usual motley lineup of baggy-clothed rappers and singers that I tuned in to watch. (Namely Jodeci. I was always holding out for some Jodeci.) I didn’t mentally rush her segment along or disappear for a snack break like I did when Hall introduced some of the other non-hip-hop guests he sometimes brought on to broaden his appeal. During her interview, Dr. Angelou rapped.
It wasn’t a rap rap like I was used to and I giggled because the cadence was different, but the words rhymed and she put some attitude on it. She was, in that moment, a whole different Maya Angelou than the one I knew from school when my class took stanzas of her poetry and recited them aloud. That Arsenio Hall Show version of the poet laureate exhibited her cool. Her poetry and prose and, later, music and acting popped up in my curriculums during grade school and, in college, had healthy representation in my African-American and women’s lit courses. I connected with her because I connected with her work.
Dr. Angelou was born in 1928, the same year as my own grandmother, and losing her reminded me how that generation and all of its loving, maternal insights and catchphrases and down-home advice are going up to yonder, as they themselves would say. It’s hurtful to see them go. At 86, it wasn’t surprising that her time was nearing. But we’re never really prepared to let good people step over to eternity, even if their contributions have been made and their purposes have been completed.
We’re always hungry for one more comment, one more experience, one more speech, one more appearance. Everyone loves them for a different reason, especially when they’ve been so many things to so many people. They usually give us more than enough to feed off of. Mother Maya certainly did.
Nothing I could write about Maya Angelou could ever be good enough. No sentence construction could properly marry words with the breadth of respect I have for her. It has a special place in my spirit. I can hope that in my living, I will enjoy a kaleidoscope of rich adventure and global experience that will do her, my play-play grandmother, her contemporary, my real-life grandmother, and even me myself proud. We all carry a little of her legacy with us.