The day before she was to speak, 15 people were shot within 15 hours in the city of Chicago. Maya Angelou arrived in Chicago on March 19, 2010, to headlines blaring of carnage in the community, and of a 7-year-old shot in the head while riding outside her grandmother’s home.
Angelou came for a Women’s History Month presentation. I came to meet one of my she-roes.
Frail and in a wheelchair, Angelou, then 81, occasionally stammered, her cracking voice yet thunderous, echoing through the packed sanctuary of South Side St. Sabina Church.
“I know you didn’t expect me to come and preach. I didn’t expect it either. I thought I was going to come and recite poetry,” she said. “But I know the headlines today and yesterday. I know that the children are being murdered. It’s happening in Chicago. It’s also happening in St. Louis, in New York, and Savannah. At some point, we have to stop it.
“We have to say, ‘Wait a minute! Hello! Hello!’” said Angelou.
Sadly, headlines are the same today as it was that day Angelou came in 2010 — daily carnage.
When I heard Wednesday that the woman many of us simply call Maya had died — unparalleled author, poet, professor, actress, director, singer and dancer — I stood, then I sat, frozen.
Frozen in reverie of what this woman had meant to me and to so many other black women, not to mention black women writers. From my first exposure to “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” her first memoir, in a high-school English class, I set out to soak up everything Maya.
I’d been left spellbound by her tale of being raped at age 7, becoming a teenage mom, yet succeeding. I was in awe of this woman’s descriptive skills, her jarring, evocative turn of a phrase. Her words rise up from pages until you feel you actually hear her speaking to you.
“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine before she realizes she’s reading,” she once famously said. So she was indeed speaking to me.
Attending the University of Iowa’s famed Creative Writer’s Workshop, I wanted to write like Maya — deft, fearless, mesmerizing. So did all the black women who were in my classes.
Maya, who later became my Soror, as an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, had always been on my list of people I’d love to meet some day. And when she came, I called the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina. Is she doing interviews afterward? No, he said. You’ve got to get me just five minutes with her, I begged.
It was the same amount of time Oprah Winfrey had begged for when she’d first met Angelou while working as a local TV anchor in Baltimore in the late 1970s. “I was careful not to take a second more than I asked for,” Winfrey says of that first encounter in the book, “Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration.” “At the end of the five minutes, [Angelou] inquired with a quizzical smile, ‘Who are you, girl?’ ” wrote Winfrey.
The two would meet again in Chicago in 1984, the ensuing friendship now history.
Pfleger said he’d get me my five minutes.
On that night in 2010, Angelou would hold court for 40 minutes on stage, speaking of nothing in particular, and yet, it seemed, about everything.
“The walls which face us today are the walls of violence, the walls of brutality, the walls of racism, the walls of sexism, the walls of cruelty. Somehow, we’ve got to do something to bring those walls down. You and I must,” said Angelou, wearing a simple black gown and minimum jewelry, salt-and-pepper curls crowning her visage of ever deepening furrows.
“Somehow, we have to say to ourselves, ‘Can we be more than we seem to be?’ ” she said. “We need to be brave enough for the time we take up and the space we occupy.”
Of her upbringing: “When I was three and my brother was five, my mother and father decided to disagree and then they decided to go further to separate and even divorce. They really didn’t want either me or my brother, so they more or less abandoned us. My father’s mother said, ‘Send them to me,’ ” said Angelou. “My grandma taught me and my brother, ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give.’ She said that’s all you need to know.”
Of life: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues. Without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. Without courage, you can have the intention, and life can slam you against the wall, and your intention slides off you quicker than a stripper will lose his G-string. True business.”
And to black Americans: “You’ve already been paid for. Sometimes, we forget our ancestors, many of them bought, sold and stolen, dared to live so that we could be here. Remember this! Don’t pretend you’ve always been free. See who you are. See the people you come from. Strong people! Magnificent people! If you really see who you are, you’ll be a better person.”
In between was a magnificent recital of her famed “Still I Rise,” her deep and gritty voice rising and falling; her face a canvas for the poem’s range of emotions.
She ended on a recital of “When I Think About Myself (I Almost Laugh Myself to Death),” cackling: “Ahahaha! Ahahaha! Aha!” at the last crescendo, and rising from her chair.
And yes, I did get my five minutes with my she-roe. In a back room, bending before her wheelchair, holding her hand as she gripped mine firmly, I whispered what was in my heart to this woman I’d always wanted to meet. She smiled. I can still see the twinkle in her eyes. She whispered back. A hug, and then I left. Our conversation never made it into my story.