Maya Angelou

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

I rise
I rise
I rise.



61 thoughts on “Maya Angelou”

  1. Wow! Kudos on your hard work. I’m super “jelly” that you got to meet her, hang out with her, AND get a gift from her, too. I’d absolutely die from happiness.

  2. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story and tribute. Sometimes people we admire are not what they seem behind the scenes, so it’s gratifying to hear that that she was inspiring and kind in and out of print.

  3. That’s quite a story. One thing I’ve noticed about meeting great people is that many of them are very kind to the persons around them. She sounds like a very kind person, indeed, and she certainly created a golden memory for you. That is a true gift…the ability to create for others golden memories.

  4. I adore this story and your admiration of her. I share in it, truly. I think my favorite line in this post is when she said to you: “I love it when I read someone else’s poem.” I can picture what that meant to you to hear her say that, as it means something to me.

    Thank you for sharing!

  5. Thank you for sharing this, now I feel as if I was there with you! Memories can be so rich and fulfilling. I love that she told you not to read your speech, just thank the people you wanted to thank and speak for your heart. I’m sure your speech was perfect. I did not want to accept her death because she feels like a dear sweet wise grandma to me. I love her spirit and her smile. She smiles with almost all the words she speaks. She will live on inside me and I want her sweet spirit to come through me in any place I’m open enough to receive. Thanks again for sharing 🙂

  6. What a fantastic story! Glad to have found your words today. Her passing stunned me too, but my first thoughts were more along the lines of: God needed her to come home more than He needed her to remain on earth… thank you for this wonderful posting

  7. When Seamus Heaney died last year (almost a year ago already!) I felt that the world seemed a little less complete, as if an essential element of reality had collapsed. I had met him for only half a minute, thirty years before, and not as a result of my own efforts, but it had grown to mean much more to me.

    This is a truly lovely and relevant piece of writing. I enjoyed it immensely, and it brought back her voice from the recordings that I heard on the radio last night, and the experience of studying her poetry as an exchange student to Arkansas in the 1980’s and at university, guided by a girlfriend fro whom Maya Angelou was primary source. I shall link to this beautiful post. Thank you.

  8. I also grieve her because i have so.much respect and admiration for her…I write poetry myself and its sad she’s gone.. may she rest in peace

  9. I too am glad to have read your post. I am feeling sad but inspired by Maya Angelou’s voice in a challenging world. I loved to get a Facebook post from her and that she was so clued up to use social media in the best way to connect us all.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are so priveledged to have met Dr. Angelou. I grew up in East Texas and I remember about that college. I’m sure they were left in awe of what a powerful black woman could be.

  11. Beautiful and personal tribute. Also a piece of history. Thank you. I also had the sense of shock at her death. That it just wasn’t supposed to happen. Not yet anyway.

  12. What a lovely memory. I had never heard of her until I read of her passing in the news. From all of the reading and watching of interviews that I have seen of her today, she was a wonderfully inspiring woman. How lovely it was that you were to be in her presence, I’m sure it was life changing for you. Hold those memories dear.

  13. Beautiful story on Maya. My favorite quote from Maya “I’ve learned people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

  14. What an awesome story! What a great memory and also it seems you forged a real connection during the time you spent with her. I’m (naively) surprised you had to fight so hard to get her to visit your campus (I’m from the North so my dealings with the South have been very limited) but I’m glad you succeeded.

  15. Maya had a gift for opening minds. I happened to run into her in a hotel in Michigan several years ago after she had spent an evening giving a lecture. We wound up sitting in the lobby and talking for about three hours. The thing that really struck me was her ability to somehow reach into your mind and pull forth your own personal poet. I must admit that I rather quickly put it back, but I have a better idea of where it is after having spent the time with her. She was one of the great teachers.

    Her telling you to discard your speech, and your not remembering it, (which means that it was probably a really good one) remind me of the conversation she and I had. I don’t remember most of it! However, that “she just is” repeated three times was just the sort of thing that she could pull out of people, rather to their own surprise.

    I do recall one thing that she said, and it’s worth sharing. The friend I was with mentioned that she thought one of her professors was terrible, and Maya said “a brilliant student can make a mediocre professor look brilliant, so it’s your job to make that professor look brilliant.” ‘Nuff said.

  16. Thankyou for sharing your tribute to this wonderful, inspiring person – Mary. Only recently after her death , I have come across the uplifting poem – I rise, i rise, I rise. And now I have to listen to it everyday!

  17. I love this post. Am still having crying jags over her passing. I get frustrated because I feel everyone should be talking about her! I imagine her on the other side with all the greats. Maybe she is having tea with Nelson Mandela.

  18. Reblogged this on Locsy With Moxie and commented:
    I wish I had met Dr. Maya Angelou in person. What a precious account, from someone who did meet her. May she rest where the greenest pasture whistles in perfect peace.

  19. Well, that was quite an adventure! I have always loved Maya Angelou. Maya brought much into our lives in so many ways. You were very blessed to have met her, and to receive such a lovely and thoughtful gift. It will always be a nice memory for you.

    Regarding a couple of other things I read on your page, you have certainly done well for yourself in life, regardless of your personal feelings and experiences.


  20. Thank you for sharing this. What an extraordinary opportunity to meet such a phenomenal women! I admire your ardor and drive to in a school that thought different than you to be persistent until they said yes. I applaud you and what an experience to be able to cherish forever!

  21. Reblogged this on Living Life Day by Day and commented:
    Imagine you had the opportunity of meeting Maya Angelou … in person, what would you have done? What would you have told her? Here is a story written by someone who met this amazing woman in person, as well as shopped with her. Truly one of the greatest women of our time; may she rest in peace.

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