This is a recording of part of Dr. Maya Angelou’s presentation at a book signing I attended in North Carolina in 2013 (audio is very clear beginning at 5 seconds – just click the arrow to hear her gorgeous voice):
The first time I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings I was in my twenties and living in New York. I remember being horrified at the act of violence against a child and the horrors of racism. Yet, I marveled in the writing. Who was this woman and how could she find the perfect word in each and every sentence? So I found more of this magical Maya and kept reading.
Fast forward, decades later and I found myself living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. I scratched my head wondering how on earth, after traveling so much of the world, I could end up in this small city in the South with such a history of racism. But I knew Maya Angelou lived there. If it was good enough for Maya, it was going to have to be good enough for me.
I figured I was bound to bump into her again. The first time was in a hotel lobby in Washington DC in the early 1990s. She was walking across the lobby of a hotel I was staying in for a conference. I spotted her immediately. After all, she was at least six foot tall so she tended to stand out in a crowd. I approached her and gently offered my hand and simply said “Thank you.” That is all I could muster, as I am known to burst into tears when I meet someone I admire. But you see, I didn’t just admire Maya, I adored her. Her writing inspired me, her strength was beyond Herculean, her booming voice was unapologetic, her work in social justice and race relations was unmatched. She was my hero. I thanked her and she was kind and grateful. I walked around in a daze for the remainder of the day.
In the early 2000s, I went to hear her speak with a group of my friends at a local college. She was brilliant, although a tickle in her throat cut her speech a bit short.
Years went by, I then I ended up in Winston Salem because of my husband’s job at the time. Honestly, it was not a good location for us. Too small. Not enough to do for two people who are accustomed to going to museums in NYC, traveling abroad, etc. That may sound pompous, but it is how we felt about Winston. I figured I’d make the most of it and hope to see Maya, dear Maya, again as she lived in Winston and taught at Wake Forest University.
My first Maya spotting was actually in our apartment building. The community threw an annual Maya party to honor her each fall, and I saw her in our lobby – dressed in a beautiful cranberry gown, smiling and chatting with her friends. I was on my way out, but the optimist in me is sure we had “ a moment” as I looked her straight in the eye and gave her a slight nod with my hands pressed together in front of my heart. She nodded, I hope in recognition of my gratitude, but honestly I have no idea as she was wearing dark glasses. I walked with an extra pep in my step that evening, that’s for sure. Just being in her space, like I felt when I heard the Dalai Lama speak, changed the energy in the room…at least for me.
Months later, I noticed an announcement that Dr. Maya Angelou would be speaking at the local Barnes and Noble book store. I was SO there! I dragged my husband,Tony, out at 7:45 AM that morning, even though she wasn’t speaking until 11 AM. I had expected a line around the block, but apparently we were the first ones there. That meant that we had the best seats in the house – about 8 feet in front of THE Dr. Maya Angelou.
When she arrived, the place was packed. She was sitting in her wheelchair, rolled in by her loyal assistant. No one knew if she would just do a book signing or if she’d speak to the crowd too. The manager told me that it would depend on her health that day. After all, she was 85 and had some good and some bad days. Thankfully, this was a good one!
I had the good fortune of remembering to hit the record button on my husband’s phone toward the end of her presentation about her book new book “Mom and Me and Mom.” I have not shared this recording until now. With her passing, I think it would be criminal not to share her words and wisdom, her humor and storytelling, with the world.
Dr. Angelou spoke that afternoon about her mother. She talked a lot about how love heals and how it allows us to care for each other. Love is what healed her relationship with her mother, which was fractured when she was a young girl and was sent away to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. She candidly shared that her mother simply couldn’t handle raising young children, but that you could find no finer parent for a teen or adult. In the recording, you can hear her reading a few pages from the book about love.
Then she took some questions. I was ready! I managed to ask one– can you even imagine being able to ask your hero a question? I seriously had to hold myself together. I could feel the tears coming – here was this legend, so strong yet so fragile – feet away from me and I really just wanted to hug her and freeze time so that I could hijack her and talk with her for days and days until my brain and heart were full of her wisdom.
Before we get to my question (which came third), I have to share how much I love her answer to the second question that was asked : What would you say to that little girl back in Stamps, Arkansas? Her answer was “Do your best to develop courage.” (In the middle of this question, you hear her ask for help with some oxygen, as she admitted that she smoked for 44 years and that she was not proud of that – and that she “isn’t done here till she says what she came to say.” 😉 Sassy as always!)
Ok, so what was my question? I had 100 to ask, but decided on this one:
What do you think it means to be a global citizen?
I have typed her answer (to the best of my ability to hear my own recording):
“I belong in this world. I belong wherever human beings are. If there are Ku Klux Klan members – if they’re human beings, I belong there. If there are Black Panthers, I belong there. If they’re men who hate women, I belong there. If they’re women who hate men, I belong there. As long as they’re human and I can talk about what it is like to be a human being, what makes a person so unhappy. Let me tell you this story: When I was seven, I was living with my grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, a village about the size of Barnes and Noble (laughter)– and my father came and picked us up and took us from my grandmother’s place where I loved her, to St Louis, to my mother’s people. I was there about two months and my mother’s boyfriend raped me. I told the name of the rapist to my brother, and he then told the family and the man was put in jail for one day and released overnight. The police came to my grandmother’s house (my mother’s mother) where we were staying – and two huge white policemen with big brass buttons and (??) – huge men, they were like giants – and they said the man, the rapist has been found dead, it seems he was kicked to death. I was so shocked. I thought my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking. I stopped speaking for six years. I thought my voice had killed him. If I just spoke, my voice might go outside, through a keyhole and out a window, and kill somebody who doesn’t deserve to be killed, so I stopped speaking. I finally…my mother’s people did their best to woo me away from my muteness and I wouldn’t . They didn’t know what I knew about my voice. So after a few days, my mother’s people sent me back to grandma, my father’s mother, Mama. And Mama would braid my hair the way that all black babies still braid girls’ hair. I would sit on the floor on a pillow, Mama would sit on her chair. I would grab her thighs like that. My hair was huge and very curly, and Mama would bend her hand like that and put it behind my neck so she wouldn’t break my neck by accident and then she’d brush all this hair. She said “Sister, Mama don’t care what these people say that you must be an idiot, that you must be a moron because you can’t talk. Momma don’t care. Mama knows that when you and the good Lord get ready, sister, you goin’ to be a teacher and you’re going to teach all over this world. I used to sit there and think ‘this poor ignorant woman’ (laughter)– I would never speak. It so happens that I’m at Wake Forest (University) and I’m a tenured professor, a lifetime position. American Studies. I’m the Chubb fellow at Yale, on the board of the library at Harvard. I teach in Spanish and French. And I have taught in Italian (?) but I’m getting slow because I don’t have enough chance to speak it, but I speak (?) and a little bit of Zulu and Arabic, so if anyone here would like to speak those languages (?Then laughter). So my blessing is that people are there to love me. I’ve had white women and men to love me enough to say ‘Maya, I believe you can do it. I believe in you.’ You ? – I don’t care – I believe in you. Asian men and women believed in me. Black men and women, some of them on the porch in Mississippi, some educated and some not educated believed in me. This is why I believe in you. This is why I teach – because I believe in you. I believe in the children. This baby – how old is she (mother says she is five and a half months). She looks like a child named Maya Grace – that’s a beautiful name , if anybody is thinking about a name. “
I seriously had to wipe the ridiculous grin off my face and try not to let the tears, which were now hovering dangerously close to the rims of my eyes, fall all over my face like a tsunami of joy.
So, I think Dr. Angelou offered a unique answer for global citizenship. She illustrated that no matter what, you can learn across cultures and use that information to empower yourself with multiple languages, a vast respect for others and a belief in others. I was just so insanely thrilled that she addressed me and actually told her story – that is at the root of one of my favorite books I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as part of her answer.
I had goosebumps. When I think back to that day, I still get them. What an answer. What a life.
She took a few more questions and then the staff efficiently moved us into the book signing phase of her visit. Of course, I was near the head of the line because I had obsessively planned our seats to be as close to Maya as well as close to where I predicted the book signing line would be.
I came prepared with several books, although she was only signing her current book at the event. However, because she was such a kind and generous spirit, her staff took all our books home with her and then we picked them up at bookstore a couple of weeks later, all signed with personal notes. We had several books signed for my sister and two dear friends. One was sent to a dear friend who was also raped as a child. I wanted to remind her of her courage, voice and strength.
When we did get to the front of the line to meet Maya, she signed our book and spoke gently with us. I asked her if I could take her hand and she said yes – and I said “Dr. Angelou, I love you.” It took every ounce of strength in me to not fall apart and cry like a baby, but I managed. It came out clearly and I meant each word. I loved this woman. She embodied all that a hero should be: strength, grace, truth, humor, intelligence, bravado. She possessed a voice that you would never forget if you had the gift of hearing it live, but the wisdom and boldness to back it up. She was an activist, one who worked toward a world she wanted to see. She embodied Gandhi’s “be the change” spirit. And she possessed the most important quality that she believed in: COURAGE.
It took a lot of courage for me to say something so directly to a person I didn’t know. I didn’t want it to sound insincere. I feared that she was told how incredible she is 100 times a day. But I love Maya and I wanted her to know it.
With her passing, I’m so glad I got those words out without sputtering tears all over Barnes and Noble. As she said in her last book, love heals. I hope that all the love she gave and received in her 86 years is healing the world that is mourning a seismic loss. I am nothing but grateful for being able to have those glimpses of brilliance, for having a charged phone battery on this particular day, for being able to hear her present one more time after the book store event and for living in a place that gave her great joy and celebrated her as she so deserved.
There is so much more that I could say about my love for this legendary woman, but I will leave it there. I’ll instead support the message that she shared at this particular talk. Love is a powerful tool that we all can possess. And as Maya said, “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
Thank you for all that you gave, with such unconditional love, to this world. Rest in peace Dr. Maya Angelou.