Maya Angelou died at the end of May. Angelou, a large woman who was larger than life, was 86. She was more of a Renaissance woman than any Renaissance woman I have ever read about: poet, civil rights activist, choreographer, dancer, actor, mother, peacemaker, filmmaker, one-time prostitute, memoirist, photographer, raiser of funds for the Museum of African History, cook and cookbook writer, winner of three Grammys and the Presidential Medal of Honor, friend and sister to many. And most likely the reason so many girls are named Maya.
I met Ms. Angelou once, at a funeral, in South Africa. It was 1993; my late husband and I had traveled to Africa to visit friends (and animals). Gail and John Gerhart, parents of Leslie Gerhart, one of my students, had recently moved to Johannesburg. Now that apartheid was officially over and a real election was about to happen, John Gerhart had been sent to set up an office of the Ford Foundation. Gail Gerhart is a scholar of South African resistance movements who was no longer banned from the country; she was anxious to meet and talk and work with the people she had supported with her research.
My John and I arrived from Cape Town the day before the funeral for Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress (in exile) while Nelson Mandela was in prison. Of course we attended the funeral (sitting in good seats thanks to Gail’s many contacts), as did luminaries from all over the globe. President Bill Clinton sent a delegation that included Donna Shalala (Secretary of Health and Human Services), the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), TransAfrica leader Randall Robinson and Maya Angelou.
The event was hot and long and packed. When it ended, we made our way to the car where we sat for an endless amount of time in a not-at-all-organized exit line. A parking attendant approached and asked if we would please make room for Miss Maya Angelou who was feeling faint from the heat and needed to get back to her hotel room. Of course we would. As her car pulled alongside, having recognized my husband, the critic, she rolled down her window and, in her extraordinary rich, deep voice, a voice only she could bring forth, said, “Mr. Leonard! When you spoke on CBS Sunday Morning about Toni Morrison and the Nobel Prize, I w-eh-p-p-T!”
From my favorite of her poems, Still We Rise:
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?