Today, the remarkable Maya Angelou turns 80. Let’s take a few minutes to join the throng in celebrating the life of this phenomenal woman.
I do not use “woman” casually, as Dr. Angelou has made clear that she believes the term to be more than an indication of gender.
“There is a world of difference between being a woman and being an old female. If you’re born a girl, grow up, and live long enough, you can become an old female. But, to become a woman is a serious matter. A woman takes responsibility for the time she takes up and the space she occupies.”
She wrote those words about Hillary Clinton, whom she steadfastly supports. But it takes one to know one. And Maya Angelou certainly has been a good steward of her own time and space, encouraging us all at every turn to press on, to speak out, to rise up.
Her journey, as we know, has not been easy. She has written a six-volume autobiographical series describing her sometimes horrific, sometimes wild life. (Forget Diablo Cody, Maya Angelo is the original stripper turned screenwriter.) Understanding her past makes her present even more remarkable.
Today, we celebrate who she has become: author, poet, historian, actor, singer, conductor, songwriter, playwright, film director, dancer, radio host, greeting card writer, professor, civil rights activist. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on Dr. Angelou’s 40th birthday.)
She is fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic and Fanti and has dozens of honorary degrees, although she never went to college. She relishes being called “Dr. Angelou.” She adores cooking, reading and laughing with friends. And she is not even close to slowing down.
I’ve had the good fortune to hear Dr. Angelou in person several times. The first was at the 1996 GALA Festival in Tampa. I knew her work superficially, but was unprepared for her presence. That smooth, rich voice completely captivated me, along with the predominantly LGBT audience of over 4,000 people who normally would much rather have been on stage themselves.
“I am gay,” she said, and paused while we collectively stopped breathing. She continued, “I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.” She went on, inviting us to embrace our shared humanity. I have been hopelessly devoted ever since.
Some years later, Dr. Angelou came to Dallas to narrate the premiere of Sing for the Cure, a choral work about the experience of breast cancer, benefiting the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I was part of the chorus for the event and was thrilled at Dr. Angelou’s participation.
When she was due to arrive for her sound check, I snuck outside, hoping for a close-up look. Her car pulled up and she emerged, taller than I remembered, circled by assistants determined to keep her from being distracted by onlookers. Dr. Angelou, however, noticed a little girl watching and stopped the procession, knelt down, and spent a few moments talking and laughing with the child. I couldn’t hear her words, but I’m sure that girl will never forget them.
Once Dr. Angelou moved into the auditorium, I said to one of the aides, “I bet it’s a big job getting her anywhere on time.” He smiled and shook his head. “We do our best. But we always have to remember that for Dr. Angelou, it’s never about the performances. It’s about the people.” It’s always been about the people.
Another of my heroes, Robin Roberts, did a wonderful interview with Dr. Angelou that aired this week; watching it will make you feel like celebrating Maya Angelou — and yourself. And it will make you very grateful to live in the same world as this phenomenally phenomenal woman.