Remembering Maya Angelou

Posted: May 30, 2014

MAYA ANGELOU had been asking about a painting that her goddaughter, Rosalyn J. McPherson, had at her home in Cherry Hill.

So on Friday, McPherson hand-delivered Angelou's self-portrait to her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. McPherson spent several days in Angelou's expansive, yellow Colonial-style house with the woman she calls "Aunty Maya." Even though it wasn't an especially impressive piece of art, the legendary author/poet was thrilled to get her painting back.

"When I walked in and put it on the chair, her whole face lit up like a little child's," McPherson, 61, said of the portrait Angelou painted in 1969. "We watched [televangelist] Joel Osteen on Sunday. She read to me from a new manuscript."

When McPherson learned early yesterday that Angelou, 86, had died, she was understandably shaken.

Though, no one lives forever.

Not even the late, great Maya Angelou, whose life spanned nearly a century.

And what a life it was, from her humble upbringing in Jim Crow-infested Stamps, Ark., to a jet-set life that had her writing poetry for world leaders and mentoring Oprah Winfrey.

I never met her, but I felt a connection.

I was just a kid when I first read Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and oblivious to the fact that I'd joined a club of people drawn to her shared pain and sage wisdom.

Over the years, I would go on to read other works by Angelou, not necessarily to know her but to know myself. Her poem "Phenomenal Women" helped me understand that it's fine to applaud your own unique beauty - even if the world doesn't clap along with you.

But my all-time favorite poetry lines come from her masterpiece "Still I Rise":

" . . . I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise."

Angelou was the world's surrogate grandmother - someone who'd seen it all, been through it all, yet still managed to create a magnificent life on her own terms. When you consider all she accomplished during her life, it's downright mind-boggling.

A former madam, she'd also worked as an entertainer, a magazine editor, an author and a civil-rights activist. Angelou spoke six languages and had lived in Egypt and Ghana, where she edited publications.

Angelou also won three Grammys, was nominated for a Tony Award and wrote not one but seven volumes of her memoir. Angelou was a college professor and friend to Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and South African President Nelson Mandela.

In 1993, she delivered a sweeping inaugural poem at former President Bill Clinton's first swearing-in ceremony. For former President George W. Bush, she read "Amazing Peace" during a 2005 Christmas-tree lighting ceremony.

President Obama, in 2011, awarded her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. This was a woman who, as a child, didn't speak for years. She would later drop out of high school at 14, become the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, then return to high school.

She really was something. Each time I hear her rich, gravelly voice, I pause to try to digest another nugget of her wisdom. I recently found myself mulling over a comment she made on OWN's "Master Class" about aging.

"I thought that the 60s were good. I thought the 60s were the hottest ever and then I got into the 70s and what? What? I loved the 70s," Angelou said when she was 82. "I thought, well, the 80s is going to be slowing down. Not! . . . Try to make it to 80."

Angelou made it well past 80 and, according to McPherson, as of last weekend was still making plans. On her agenda: an annual, all-white Fourth of July party.

Before McPherson returned home, Angelou gave her a signed copy of His Day Is Done, a book version of Angelou's poetic tribute to Mandela.

"She was sitting at the kitchen table working a manuscript this weekend," said McPherson, the new head of the Urban League of Philadelphia. "I'm just so glad that she held on and we got to do what we do."

We, too, should be glad Angelou held on for as long as she did. We're better for it.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com

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