Dr. Maya Angelou graced us with her presence last night.
And I do mean grace. The woman seems to be carved out of it. Every gesture, every sentence, even a few self-deprecating asides, she delivered with quintessential grace.
Angelou alluded to the fact her appearance here at UCLA Live was originally scheduled for a month earlier.
“I was halfway here when I got the news that I was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom….Understandably, I turned around,” she said, and was greeted with appreciative laughter. (Angelou does not fly and travels to her engagements via a large and very slick, decked-out tour bus.)
“I thought the least I could do was to not only come, but bring the medal,” she said, gleefully brandishing it as the audience cheered.
Thoughts of people from Africa, bound and shipped as slaves to America, thoughts of every race of immigrants in this country were with her as she accepted the honor, Angelou said.
“I thought of every one of us, wherever we are, whatever we are, whether Budda or Pest,” she said. “Human beings are more alike than we are unalike. I know that. At my best and at my worst, I represent you. And at your best and at your worst, you represent me.”
If you remember that in everything you do, even in saying hello to a stranger, she said, “you can lift up the whole human race.”
The woman is a walking poem and last night, she admonished us to think of poetry as a glue that can help bind us together.
She embodies that idea, beginning and ending her speech by singing a humble and raw rendition of a folk spiritual I Shall Not Be Moved, one that her beloved Grandmother often sang.
Affectionate stories about and remembrances of living with her Gradmother (called “Momma”) were peppered throughout Angelou’s appearance. She deftly swung from smilingly recalling poignant details of childhood inspirations and adventures, to recounting the sad memory of being raped at a young age and the subsequent trauma that rendered her mute for several years, refusing to speak to anyone except her brother Bailey.
Angelou said she found solace in poetry, reading and memorizing everything from Poe to Shakespeare during those silent years.
“When I started reading Shakespeare, I thought he must have been a black girl, living in the south, who had been molested,” she said. “How else could he know what I know?”
As she spoke, her memories flowed seamlessly into a graceful recitation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
“I knew that that sweet love was my grandmother’s love,” Angelou said reflectively.
Angelou offered a something to every fan in that audience, from acknowledging her affinity for country music (“When it’s right, it’s very right”) to reciting from her most celebrated work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to a humorous anecdote about getting caught smoking in a health food restaurant, which led to a mischievous recounting of this lighthearted piece from her oeuvre.
The Health-Food Diner
No sprouted wheat and Soya shoots
and Brussels in a cake,
carrot straw and spinach raw,
today I need a steak.
Not thick brown rice and rice pilaf
or mushrooms creamed on toast,
turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
I’m dreaming of a roast.
Health food folks around the world
are thinned by anxious zeal,
they look for help in seafood kelp
I count on breaded veal.
No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
and zucchini by the ton,
uncooked kale and bodies’ frail
are sure to make me run.
Loins of pork and chicken thighs
and standing rib, so prime,
pork chops brown and fresh ground round
I crave them all the time.
Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
for carnivores. smoking
It was a remarkable evening from a remarkable woman and I think we all left feeling just a little bit better about, well, everything.
This is one of my favorite quotes about Dr. Angelou, from London’s Guardian newspaper:
“She is like the Desiderata in human form – issuing a litany of imperatives and exhortations to be fabulous, conscious, passionate and compassionate. A professional hopemonger…”
I think the world could use a few more hopemongers like Maya Angelou in it and a few less mongers of other sorts.
Thanks to all who were there with us. It was truly a special night.