Many people will remember Maya Angelou for her phenomenal career. She was a true renaissance woman: an author, teacher, dancer, performer, radio personality and a producer. I will remember her a sister friend, a wise ‘auntie’ who didn’t mind pulling your coat. She was a generous spirit who made time for virtually any who asked, a gentle and kind spirit.
If you dropped by when a meal was being served, she asked you to sit down and enjoy the assembled company. If you came and it was not the meal hour, she never hesitated to offer a cup of tea and a snack. She knew before you did that you needed a hug an encouraging word. I’ve seen her take the hat off her head and give it to someone who admired it, She shared her work. It was not unusual to sit at her working table and listen to a poem or some wisdom she was sharing. Sitting at her table one day, I decided to put some of her words in my cell phone, thinking that I’d like to review them one day. She very gently took the phone from me and told me, “Just listen. You don’t have to write everything down. I am giving you my undivided attention and I want the same from you.” Properly chastened, I left the phone on the table for the rest of the visit.
Sister Maya loved people, genuinely and unconditionally. When asked about the greatest virtue, she said that it was courage, the courage to love. She loved everyone, the pauper and the princess. She would often list the way she loved, mentioning the Black and White, the Asian and Latino, a one-eyed man and the woman who is missing a leg. And if you had the privilege of attending her Thanksgiving dinner, you saw exactly that—a rainbow of the people she loved.
Each year that I served as president of Bennett College in North Carolina, she visited the campus and gave a lecture to students. Once, I asked her to spend time with the honor students and she told me, sharply. “I would rather spend time with the students at the bottom,” she said. “They are the ones who need encouragement.”
She opened her home, the sculpture garden and the pool to a group of pre-teens from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Washington, D.C. Escorted by Cora Masters Berry, the former first lady of Washington, the girls could not stop talking about her generosity and the words she shared with them. I wondered how a woman whom most consider an icon would take the time to entertain five 11-year-olds for a couple of hours.
That was Maya.
The first time I remember sharing a meal with her was in 1989 when the women who appeared in Brian Laske’s I Dream a World were gathered for a reception. When two women I accompanied left as soon as the program was over, Auntie Maya (which she asked me to call her) graciously invited me to dine with her friends. My 30-something self basked in the attention.
Mid-reception, a man attempted to get everyone’s attention (and with a room with Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and others, you can imagine who difficult it was). The gentleman whistled and Auntie Maya, gathering herself to full height, chided the man with a rebuke and also an impromptu poem. “You will not whistle at Black women,” she said. “We had enough of that when we were chattel. You will respect us as the women that we are.” She went on and by the time she was finished, not a word was uttered by anyone else.
“We have already been paid for,” she frequently said, recounting the horror of slave ships, the harsh conditions of slavery, the inequalities of Jim Crow, and contemporary instances of inequality. She spoke so vividly that you could see the people crowded into a ship, with not even enough room or facilities to attend to bodily functions. She frequently quoted Paul Lawrence Dunbar: “ I know why the caged bird sings.”
The last time I heard the song was at dinner with San Francisco’s Rev. Cecil Williams, and his wife and poetess, Jan Mirikatini. We loved up on each other and told stories, released and enjoyed the conversational flow. We ended the evening with laugher and fellowship. It was the kind of evening in which we reveled. Good food, good talk, good friends.
As I got my walk on the next morning, I was flooded with appreciation and memories. I was in a rich space and I had been fed. I paused to appreciate Auntie Maya. I was so very grateful to know her, not as an icon, but as a friend.
At the end of her life, Auntie Maya was frail. “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” she said. As Blame Bayne wrote on my Facebook page, “No longer caged, she forever sings.” Ache Auntie Maya, Ache.
(Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. Parts of this column appeared in USA Today on May 29.)