Published on 28 May 2014

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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15 reader comments

  1. Alison says:

    And the time when she came to London was the time I got to meet her. I was only a little girl talking to her through the fence but I remember it is so vividly as at the time she made me feel like I was so very interesting to her, when in fact, I was just a little girl at the fence.

  2. Pauline Kahney says:

    Someone like Maya Angelou makes America great, and me, originally a Brit, so proud to be American! Unashamed to talk about her past, her presence radiated on all occasions. What a loss to us!

  3. Karen says:

    Maya’s writings have had a profound influence on my life. Her ability to endure despite everything was inspirational. I read her first book in my 20s and now nearly 50 I still quote her words of wisdom. I will always remember how she made me feel – inspired.

  4. Tracey Clarkson-Donnelly says:

    A fine spirit, Maya was an exceptional woman
    Listening to Nina Simone

  5. Elizabeth Murray says:

    Thank you Channel 4 News and Jon Snow….thank you for showing Maya Angelou the respect, admiration and the love that she deserved. She was a wonderful woman.

  6. bill mcfeely says:

    Wellfleet checking in. We too knew Decca, but more to the point is Jon’s lovely tribute to the wonderful mMya Angelou.

  7. Andrew says:

    Thank you Jon for such an uplifting tribute to Maya Angelou on C4 news tonight.
    Wonderful
    It could only be C4

  8. Carina Huessy says:

    Fantastic: Maya Angelou + Jon Snow – warms the knuckles of my heart, as my Dad would say.

  9. Elly Taylor says:

    I made a film with Dr. Angelou in 1996 called ‘Angelou on Burns’. I always remember I sent a fax via Virago to find out if she would be interested in such a project. Her reply was inspiring ‘Good Morning Miss Taylor, I love Robert Burns and I love your idea what do we do next!’ Fabulous. I had been inspired with this film idea when I heard her on the Radio 4’s poetry programme ‘With Great Pleasure’ when she announced that her second most favourite poem was ‘Tam O’Shanter’. I was intriqued. We got the film made – it was a fascinating journey and she came to Scotland and experienced Burns first hand. We have lost a great lady.

  10. msiame says:

    Great worrds for a great woman. I think you’re lucky to have known and friended her.

  11. Philip Edwards says:

    Jon,

    People like Maya Angelou prove there is only one race:

    The human race.

  12. catherine tutton says:

    I feel bereft. She had an enormous influence on my life. I feel very privileged to have seen her when she first came to London. Her voice , presence, wisdom, talents, sense of humour still resonate in me. She was my role model. Catherine

  13. Drew says:

    Flicking through the channels when I was a teenager, I came across you presenting an award to Maya Angelou. In a triumphant crescendo, you echoed one of her best-known poems to call her to the stage – “Rise Maya. Rise!” – prompting the entire audience to rise with her in ovation. That’s all I remember now of your speech, but it inspired me to hunt out “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. I went to hear her speak at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall that same year with someone who expressed her shock that I had read a book that dealt so heavily with “woman’s issues”. However, what ran through all of Dr. Angelou’s work is that there are only “issues”. They are relevant to everyone. That, I believe, was the source of both her authority and her universal appeal, how she could be simultaneously “imperious” and salt of the earth, and why today her loss is being felt by so many.

    Thank you Mr Jon Snow for introducing me to her! My life was greatly enriched as a result. I’m not in the UK tonight, but I’m sure your tribute to her on C4 has allowed others to be touched by this great lady. Thank you.

  14. Heather says:

    Thank you Jon for sharing your memories of an amazing woman. I met Dr Angelou in London. She is the warmest woman I have ever met. A huge presence who did not give autographs but gave enormous warm hugs.

  15. Bob Robertson says:

    Jon, what do you think about the youtube video of George Galloway’s attack on an ex-Respect voter? If George were a prominent figure of the Yes Scotland campaign, presumably this would be headline news? Strange silence. A member of Westminster parliament…youtube. com/watch?v=-XnWwG4IJRg

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