Remembering Maya Angelou
It is a surreal movie, my remembering a phenomenal woman who became an American icon and a national treasure. The movie misbehaves, or rather it behaves like a piece of conceptual music. A single note followed by 18 minutes of white noise followed by a blues passage from “Big Mama” Thornton singing “Summertime” followed by an hour of silence suddenly ending with Pavarotti singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” in Italian. Remembering Maya Angelou is a cinema trip.
I need to remember “Sympathy,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem about that unhappy bird in a cage, and how Angelou knew why that caged bird sang. And she elaborated the metaphor without a mask.
I need to remember the force and grace of her reading at Jackson State University, to remember Margaret Walker saying “I did not know she was so tall.” And at that reading how Angelou explained nothing worthwhile is free, thus schoolchildren should learn responsibility by paying a dime to hear her read.
I need to remember why Angelou’s voice can’t be imitated, why now we have the echo of the voice on vinyl or CD, why I need to listen to her calypso songs. And the voice, its laughter, ringing in my memory of her being at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Festival. I remember her smile as we danced together at a private party given by one of her aristocratic friends from Ghana in a fancy apartment in Washington, DC; I remember another party in DC at the home of the elegant Eleanor Traylor where Angelou told Paule Marshall and Eugene Redmond that they must come into the kitchen to hear a white Aborigine she had discovered sing ancient music. That must have been the party at which I talked with her then husband Paul de Feu. He reminded me of Austin Strauss who had been married to my classmate Anne Moody and then later to Wanda Coleman. I guess I am remembering that love and integration and marriage are quite a trinity.
I remember Angelou reading at a National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and how a young black woman from Canton, Mississippi cried out “You tell’em Maya.” Dr. Angelou stopped, cast a stern gaze upon the woman, and said “You must not speak to your mother like that.” Neither Maya Angelou nor Nina Simone suffered fools when they performed.
Eugene Redmond reminded me the day after Angelou died that he had a photograph of me and her at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn when she received the Langston Hughes Award. I am talking. She is listening intensely. I am delivering a message from Grace Killens, the widow of Angelou’s mentor John Oliver Killens. I remember she said, “I must send her something. She and John were always so kind to me.”
I remember Angelou inviting me to sit at her special table during one Zora Neale Hurston Festival for dinner and drinks. I remember her saying on another occasion to a group of us that we should pray for Nikki Giovanni. “She is not well.” I remember Angelou telling me and Richard Long about a telephone call from some reporter for some New York newspaper, asking her about some unflattering statement Bill Cosby made about African American people. Her response to the reporter was “Did he lie?”
I remember reading her poetry and prose, seeing her read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inaugural, reacting very positively and sometimes not so positively to her work. I remember my parents taught me to have good manners and respect for my elders and to be humble in the presence of greatness. I remember talking with and listening to Maya Angelou in the ambience of awe, pure awe. But then too, I remember, that some famous people are ordinary people who have the gift of making themselves extraordinary, uncommon, phenomenal, unique. They touch the world. And when they depart this world for elsewhere, what is most worthy of remembering is their legacy of struggle to make this planet Earth a place where equality, tolerance, and peace might flourish and that I am obligated somehow to continue the always unfinished work of their legacy.
I reckon I remember more about Maya Angelou than I am willing to tell, and the footage of what must remain private will never appear when my surreal movie is spoken. It is sufficient that I understand the caged bird escaped and sing even more brilliantly than the woman commemorated in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings.”
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 4, 2014
Tribute program at Café Istanbul, New Orleans, LA