I’ve had the honor of hearing Dr. Angelou on two occasions. The last time was when I was during graduation festivities at law school at the University of Miami but my most memorable time was when I was going into my sophomore year of college at Michigan State. My father had the opportunity to help produce a talk she gave with Harry Belafonte that summer.
After listening to their unhurried discussion, full of wisdom, stories and laughter, I had the chance to go backstage to meet them both. My dad guided me over to Mr. Belafonte who smiled wearily and shook my hand. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Angelou was standing in front of me, in all of her majestic height . My dad told her, “Maya, this is my youngest. She’s going to be a sophomore in college.” She smiled broadly and said in that powerful voice of hers, “No, she’s not, she’s only in the tenth grade!” I guess this was a reference to my baby face.
Standing in front of someone so accomplished and well loved, it’s easy to get tongue-twisted and shy but Maya Angelou had a way of making you feel so comfortable, like you were the most important person in the world and she wanted to hear your every word. I felt like I was in the presence of a family member.
“So, I read that you speak Spanish,” I said casually and she smiled even more broadly and responded, “Sí!” and the next thing I know, I’m having a conversation with her with her in Spanish (though it should be noted that she also spoke French, Fanti, Arabic AND Serbo-Croat). We talked about the importance of language and how it opened doors and that I should learn French so I could use it in Africa (Sorry, Dr. Angelou! I studied Portuguese instead).
The experience was electric and when our conversation wound down she praised my accent by telling me that I had Spain in my mouth. She smiled again and held my face in her hand like a loving grandmother before moving on.
It is this memory that I carry with me on this day that Dr. Maya Angelou passed from this earth. I am saddened by her sudden absence but grateful that I had a chance to have that special moment in time with her. Rest well, Mother Angelou.