This week the planet became a little less poetic as we witnessed the passing of the iconic and incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou. For her son, Guy, my beloved friends, colleagues and others who were members of her immediate and most intimate extended families, please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Having spoken to some of you this week, I know you miss her deeply and seek the way to find comfort in her words, counsel and the memories of her big-hearted love for each of you and humankind. For the countless others who claim association through her writings, speeches, presentations and bigger than life as we know it presence on the planet, her passing presents an opportunity to lean into and lean on all she had to share. Love. Wisdom. Compassion. Beauty. Grace. Hope.
I recall the times I had an opportunity to meet her and work on causes and with people she loved deeply — Bennett College for Women, efforts related to diversity and inclusion, equal rights, humanity generally and children particularly. Today, I especially cherish receiving an autographed copy of her book, Letters to my Daughter, delivered to me by Dr. Gloria Herndon after she attended one of Dr. Angelou’s Thanksgiving gatherings that are legend amongst her family and closest associates. I didn’t get to attend one of those holiday gatherings, but word is, they were a truly special coming together in communion and in celebration of the best life has to offer — good people, good food and libations, invigorating conversation, fun, laughter and love. Name calling and intolerance for others was not tolerated, and persons who crossed that line would be asked to leave. My. My. I can only imagine.
Interestingly, several years ago, I had the honor of accepting an award on behalf of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, President Emerita of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. The award was being given to Dr. Cole by the Maya Angelou Charter School (See Forever Foundation) located in Washington, DC. David Dominici and James Forman, Jr. founded the school to help at-risk youth, with an initial focus on those in the juvenile justice system. Vivid images of the award ceremony now come to mind. Dr. Angelou sitting in a box near the stage of the historic Lincoln Theater in Washington, DC, located in the historic African American Shaw neighborhood, right next door to Ben’s Chili Bowl. It was an incredible celebration in support of the school and the youth who attend it. Beloved Angelou confidant and friend, charter school board member, Robby Gregg, moved about adroitly to ensure that the program was engaging and on time. Many dignified folks and celebrities participated. In fact, the co-founder of BET, Sheila Johnson, also received an award that evening along with other Washington notables. But honestly, the memorable and magical moments I recall most deeply are of looking around the theater and seeing the hundreds of African American students, many of whom were once at-risk, but whose life trajectories were now changed indelibly because of the school. The other most profound and soulfully extraordinary moment that is permanently etched in my spiritual DNA is what Dr. Angelou had to say. Her remarks were not a part of the program, and she never left her box. But, she let the organizers know she had something she wanted to say, and they gave her the mic — but of course.
My. My. Before she spoke, she took a breath. With one breath, the room fell silent. Absolutely silent — and still. A stillness that connected each of us, one to the other, accompanied by a quiet that connected us to a place where there was no time and space, only truth. And then, she spoke — not from her head, but from her heart and the depths of that soul space where genius is born and faith is rooted. The auditorium was suspended in the now and consciousness was awakened as one body comprised of many parts. The essence of what she said cannot effectively be shared within the parameters of a quote. But her message that evening is part of our charge today. What she said, paraphrased, is this: “These children, each of these children, all of them belong to us. Black, white, brown, rich, poor, bitter, buttressed, broken or displaced, they are our responsibility. Whether they are from the hills of Appalachia, villages of Africa . . . these are our children. We must love them, care for them and provide the opportunities that allow them to soar. This is a responsibility from which we should not and cannot run. It is a responsibility we must embrace and run toward.” With the completed enunciation of the very last syllable of what she had to say, the auditorium took a slow, collective silent breath, as the essence of what she said settled into the essence of our beings. With that deep inhaled breath, we accepted the charge.
Dr. Angelou’s love for children is undeniable, and her love for all people of every race, hue and persuasion are the lasting lessons that connect each of us to her and a piece of eternity. Let us move forward boldly, leaning into and on the memories, words and legacy emanating from that which she shared, that which is true and good.
This is just a little slice of what I want to share about one incredibly brilliant and beautiful woman that blazed a trail big enough for a world of people to fill. For those who love her deeply, the loss may have created a void for now. In time, her legacy and love for humanity will reveal itself as a portal of knowledge and opportunity that’s more extraordinary and phenomenal than we currently understand, but will grow to know in the most expansive parts of our minds and the deepest parts of our souls.
Do you have any thoughts or memories you would like to share about Dr. Angelou? How are you choosing to honor her legacy? What are you doing in your life to help others, or someone other than yourself? Take a moment and share your thoughts here.