My friend, Maya Angelou – America's great warrior
I just heard she’s died. I just lost an amazing friend.
Maya Angelou was far larger than life: a vast life force. Tall, somewhere around six foot, with a voice that ranged from deep baritone to high contralto. She could recite, sing, dance, laugh, cry, speak, and above all write. She wrote her life from birth to near death.
It was a life that etched the beginnings of an understanding of civil rights through to the great moment of the anointing of a black president in 2008.
She was born in St Louis, Missouri, but her working class parents’ “calamitous marriage” collapsed when she was three-years-old and she was sent with her four-year-old brother alone by train to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her maternal grandmother. At eight, and reunited with her mother, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. We only know his surname, Freeman, and that he was jailed for one day as punishment. Four days later he was murdered, almost certainly by one of Maya’s uncles.
This was the backdrop to a life that criss-crossed America. A life that took her to dance school to mothering her own child at 17-year-old, and eventually – through her writing and her speaking – to the making of a huge contribution to the struggle for civil rights. She worked with Martin Luther King, with Malcolm X and with all the great leaders of the movement. Her totemic autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, remains an American literary mile-stone, widely read with her six other books through which her life is threaded.
She could hold huge audiences captive with her storytelling, her poetry and her singing. I came to know her through Decca (Jessica) Mitford – the most left-wing Mitford sister who was then living in California. This white aristocratic woman and the African American Maya proceeded in the days of segregation to drive together through the bitterly racially divided state of Arkansas.
Upon being questioned about their relationship, Decca would exclaim that Maya was her daughter. It was perhaps just possible in age terms – Decca was 12 years older – but in racial terms? Decca simply said in her haughty voice; ”You know, these things just happen.” They were the closest of friends all their lives.
Video: Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993
Maya constantly surprised. Her access to everyone was total. One year, Decca called me to say that Maya needed somewhere to stay in London. So it was that she lived with me in Kentish Town for nearly two months – writing. Every evening she’d be down Leighton Road having a drink or two in the Irish pub, the Gloucester Arms.
She managed to be both imperious and absolutely one of the people at one and the same time. She was enormous boundless fun. Intoxicating to be with. It was never a good idea to cross her. I never tried.
The best of times was aboard a liner that Oprah Winfrey had hired in Florida to celebrate her 75th birthday. Martin Luther King’s widow was there, so was Quincy Jones and so many more. I was amongst an ethnic minority of perhaps six or eight on a boat with 100 people aboard. Every day we’d awaken to a new present: a pair of Donald Duck slippers, or the blue gingham check dressing gown that I have to this day with a caged bird on its breast pocket.
Maya Angelou was a woman in a million. In living, she brought joy and understanding to many millions. In death she leaves behind a wonderful legacy of poetry and books.
America has lost a very great warrior, and a true exceptional performer. And I, along with so very many others, have lost a friend.
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