Of all the things I remember about the time I met Maya Angelou, I don’t quite remember how we ended up shopping in Shreveport, Louisiana the day after she visited my college. As college friends post memories on my Facebook page of her visit, I have been trying all day to remember exactly how we ended up shopping and how she came to buy me this scarf.
I do remember that the process, the work of bringing her to campus taught me everything I needed to know about political maneuverings, regional pride, and, eventually, what is possible when an entire institution decides to do a thing right.
I got it into my head one summer that I should bring her to my small, private, mostly lily white, college in Northwest Louisiana. I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in middle school in Biloxi, Mississippi when my father was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base. The sexual violence alarmed me, but I remember deciding not to tell my mother about it for fear she’d want me not to read anymore. And I very much wanted to finish it and read what came next. I didn’t really think of her again until I saw her in an interview with Bill Moyers.
It was the summer before my junior year.
Beyond all the uplifting rhetoric of her poems that informs how I hope to move through the world, the interview introduced me to her poem “The Mask” and the line “They say, but sugar, it was our submission that made your world go round” sounded like a call, felt like a directive to my 20-year old self. I wasn’t raised in the tradition of thinking of “the ancestors” or being beholden to anyone but God and my parents, but three years in Louisiana, at a campus that celebrated the War Between the States every year and had an all white choir because black voices “didn’t blend” left me open to what I heard in that poem. It animated the struggle and my obligation to those who waged it, and I thought the first step was to bring Maya Angelou to my school.
It never occurred to me that my peers would say no, that the Student Government Association that I’d criticized regularly when I was editor-in-chief of the campus paper would balk at spending what, at the time, seemed an incredible amount of money to bring a speaker to campus. Especially a Black woman. When I was a student at Centenary, the college’s flagship organization the Centenary Choir was still all white, and I remember marching out of a scholarship luncheon in protest when they started playing Dixie. We referred to the impoverished neighborhood directly behind the opulent First Methodist Church as “The Bottoms” with no irony or sense of awareness.
As an Air Force brat I was, on one level, different—definitely not Southern—and, with a Surinamese mother, not even entirely American. I was used to cordoning off my life (living one way “off base” and another way beyond the gates), so despite the college’s small size, I found a safe community in the English department with a close-knit group of professors who were teachers, mentors, critics, and cheerleaders all at the same time. They thought it was a fine idea to bring Angelou to campus, but the SGA controlled the budget I needed as chair of the Forums Committee, and I needed to get their vote to spend it.
It didn’t go so well.
I made all the wrong arguments for that particular group. I talked about the fact that she was an amazing writer and a Civil Rights icon. They didn’t care. I demanded a celebration of a woman of color at a school that still celebrated Old South day at the KA house. They wouldn’t budge. I spoke with people individually and tried to charm them. I wasn’t that charming. In the end, I prepared a brief handout for a formal presentation at a meeting and showed them the video of her interview I’d asked my mother to record. What finally turned the tide was one SGA member realizing that Angelou claimed Arkansas as home. It was where she was from too, so she changed her mind. Place trumped race, the fee, and my personal failings as a lobbyist.
It turned out to be such an event that it ended up all the way in The New York Times . I’d love to take credit for all of it, but I don’t remember things. I don’t remember how the members of the Centenary Women’s Quorum got it into their heads to buy copies of the novel for everyone on campus. And I don’t remember who invited the Shreveport campus of the HBCU Southern University to my 94% white college to attend the reading.
I do remember going to Brown Chapel and counting the seats in each pew with my own bottom so I could get an accurate count of how many people would fit (800). I remember standing in that same chapel by myself imagining introducing her to the community, wondering if anyone would actually show up. I also remember the director of the Meadows Museum offering to distribute the tickets and both of us being caught unaware when all 800 were gone almost as soon as the museum opened.
On the day of her visit, I started my period unexpectedly and had to change clothes, so instead of wearing my carefully planned outfit I was in a borrowed, ill-fitting skirt and a boring blouse. I looked as if I hadn’t taken the time to prepare for her, but that wasn’t true. I was mortified (and she looked concerned), but that evening I showed up looking like a raised right black girl, and she was pleased.
Her height meant she needed a large car, and a member of the Board of Trustees owned a funeral parlor. He sent us a limousine with a driver for the day, and a bunch of us piled in the car and went and had a visit with her over drinks. While there she asked me not to read the speech I had written, and I panicked a bit. Mostly I was worried about the people I had to thank. She urged me to thank who I needed to thank but then to just speak about what it was like for us to be together. I forgot my bad outfit, my friends, and the 800 people who would be there. And we just talked.
I’m trying to remember the speech. I can’t really recall it.
The mayor was there that night, and so was my mother. I wore a black skirt and a black blouse with a jewel neck. I wrapped a large beige sash around my waist and pulled my hair back into a bun. We took a picture with the SGA president, and we all look pretty awful.
I missed the reception after, but she was there and when the roses showed up her assistant had been at her side long enough to know they came with thorns. She was tired and getting ready to leave and she almost left without me, but I got into the car at the last minute and nestled up against her saying, “you read my favorite poem!” She replied, “I love it when I read someone else’s poem.” I will never forget her voice or the fact that she called the house and told me she liked my father’s voice (he’s a tenor, and it’s lovely).
She didn’t actually need a limousine—just a big car. My parents owned something we lovingly called The Queen Mary, so I used it to pick her up the next day. My mother remembers that she wanted to get her hair done. I said something about looking for a barrette. She thought I was mispronouncing beret. And so we shopped. And not just at one store. We went to the Pier One on King’s Highway and then drove across town to the Dillard’s. I rambled on and on, and she was kind and patient. It struck me as only a little surreal to have this private time with her and her assistant. She asked about my family. I asked a million questions.
When we were leaving Dillard’s it started to rain. We made it to the car just in time, but I looked back and saw an older black woman standing under the awning. I ran back to walk her to her car. I didn’t think about and wouldn’t remember all these years later, but when I got back to the car Dr. Angelou said, “You’ve moved me today” and gave me the scarf I assumed she’d bought for herself.
I never thought she would die. I know that’s silly. I guess I thought she’d live to be at least 100, at least. And I’m surprised at the depth of my sadness. It’s not as if she was an everyday presence in my imagination. She’s not, say Lucille Clifton, or Alice Walker’s Meridian. But at 10:20, ten minutes before my class was to begin, I saw the news and cried immediately.
There’s something about losing the great figures from those early years when you still believed that anything was possible and when your confidence was not dampened by experience and the cynicism it brings.
I remember one part of my introductory speech, I remember repeating “She just is. She just is. Just is.”
And I remember standing in the amphitheater at my College, at a poetry reading and saying proudly:
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave