I never shook her hand, but Maya Angelou revealed enough of herself through her books and public appearances that I feel like I have known her for a long time. The first time I met her, though, I did not realize the gift I was being offered.
In 1992 I was 26 and working in Clinton, Iowa. The Davenport, Iowa, NAACP hosted a free Black History Month event which featured Maya Angelou and folk-singer Tracy Chapman. For me, I was drawn to the event because Chapman’s work had become accessible on mainstream radio. Ms. Angelou’s reciting the poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration wasn’t until the following year.
The Black History Month promoters publicized the name of her most famous work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and not its widely known content. I only planned to scan her book as a light reading Harlequin romance. My superficiality about it revealed my cultural illiteracy and not Ms. Angelou’s lack of notoriety. So I was unprepared for what she shared in the autobiography and I was deeply affected as anyone is who reads Ms. Angelou’s gripping prose. Later, I sat in the audience as a solitary young white woman with a desire to forge relationships within the black community (or with anyone who would be kind to me for that matter) and to overcome my own racist and, sometimes, abusive life experiences. I felt her presence deeply and excitedly. She vocalized my deep yearning to release a life and activism within me that had been imprisoned by others abuse of power.
Maya Angelou’s innocence was stolen from her as a child, but she found a way to transform it into a springboard to reach out to the rest of the world and sing for the freedom of all the other caged birds. I give thanks to the Universe for the gift of Ms. Angelou’s life and for its generosity in lifting her high enough to fill the sky with her wisdom and power. And I give thanks I was able to hold a small piece of it for myself.