The first time I ever heard the name Maya Angelou was as a college student at Rutgers University in my native Jersey in the late 1980s. Sadly, as a young man fixated on changing the world, thanks to my involvement in movements like the one to end apartheid in South Africa, I discovered and read as many Black writers as possible, to make up for the fact I had not heard of Dr. Angelou, or really any Black writers up until I was 18 years old. Of all Dr. Angelou's work the one piece that has stuck with through the years is her timeless poem "Still I Rise."
As a Black boy born and bred in a ghetto, without a father, in horrific poverty, that poem was a revelation for my deeply wounded spirit and self-esteem. A few years later I was in profound shock and awe when President-elect Bill Clinton picked Maya Angela to as his inaugural poet. Here she was, a long tree of a woman with a voice that wove Southern syrup and heated cotton fields around a tongue that spoke of an America that belongs to us all. For in Maya Angelou's words anything was possible. Naturally Dr. Angelou's fame exploded with that inaugural poem, and she has been, until her death, the de facto poet laureate of America.
But for me my memory of Dr. Angelou is far more personal. As a young poet finding my way and my own literary tongue in the 1990s, I had an opportunity to serve as a literary curator for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta for many years. That meant I was directly involved in inviting and booking writers like Dr. Angelou. I never got to have a one-on-one conversation with her because, quite truthfully, I was quite blown away by this woman who walked among queens and kings and dancers and actors and hustlers and dime-store dreamers with equal grace and class. So I would watch Dr. Angelou, with her bottle of soda always near her, from a safe distance.
I eyed her mannerisms, the way she sat, the way she spoke the language of people -- everyday people -- that forced its way into her greatest literary achievements, like her first memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Hers was a life born of nothingness, of vicious sexual assault, of shattered boulevards and smashed glass windows. But from the muck of that life, Maya Angelou became a voice for girls, for women, and even for boys like me who battled our own demons, including the patriarchy and sexism we were handed like a birthright.
Yes, I count Dr. Maya Angelou, this woman who never went to college but received numerous honorary doctorates, as one of my greatest teachers, as a writer, as an activist, as a speaker, as a man and as a human being.