Memories of Maya
Illustration of Maya Angelou
Illustration of Maya Angelou by Joey Stocks for The Dramatist

Maya Angelou was a prolific writer, a world traveler, a tireless activist for civil and human rights, an organizer, an actor, a director, a mother, and a wildly popular speaker on college campuses until she retired from the circuit shortly before she died. Her long and undeniably colorful existence sometimes leads people to describe her as larger than life, but they miss the point. She was exactly as large as the life she imagined and then crafted for herself. Perhaps more than any other writer of her generation, she constructed the narrative of her real life with the same care she brought to the task of writing it down. She seemed to know that her best subject was always herself and she embraced the telling of the tale with the same enthusiasm with which she lived it.

Maya Angelou was a woman accustomed to being photographed. There are pictures of her as a young woman engaged in deep conversation with Malcolm X wearing a perfect afro and cat eye sunglasses, right on through her graceful aging before our eyes into an American literary treasure. We loved her words, but we also admired her style. Wrapped in kente cloth or draped in designer silk, there were always earrings, often bangles, sometimes a simple string of pearls against a plain black dress. She is undeniably regal, her head wrapped in colorful African fabric or covered by the occasional splendor of a classic church hat. She is almost always smiling. Looking back recently across years of photographs, the thing that I am drawn to is that smile. Only the most spiritually advanced among us get to wear such a smile. You can see it on the Dalai Lama or Bishop Tutu or Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s the smile that says, I see it all, I be it all, and I embrace the fullness of it all with great joy and as much courage as I can muster. I loved that smile.

My favorite picture of Maya Angelou was taken by Chester Higgins, Jr. at a reception following the 1991 interment of the ashes of poet Langston Hughes. The urn was placed lovingly under a floor mosaic by Houston Conwill in the lobby of the Schomburg Center not far from the Harlem brownstone where Hughes lived much of his life. The guests included many of his close friends and colleagues and after the formal ceremony they stood together sharing memories when a jazz combo began to play. That was all the encouragement Maya needed. There she is wearing a floor length white skirt, a shimmering black top and white satin heels. The angle of her body reflects the ease of one who is comfortable on any dance floor. She is holding tightly to the hand of her partner, writer Amiri Baraka, who is bopping low over bent knees, snapping his fingers in time to the music. Both have the same look of effortless cool as they dance to call in the Spirits who will convey their friend to Paradise. And, of course, she is smiling that smile.

There are many reasons why I love this photograph, not the least of which is that all three of these writersAngelou, Baraka, and Hugheswho are known primarily as poets, are also playwrights. Given the slightest opportunity, we who have chosen to write for the theatre, are quick to point out that when Maya was first approached to write her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she initially declined because she considered herself a playwright and a poet, not a memoirist. We are, of course, forever grateful that she allowed herself to be persuaded, but we are equally grateful that she remained a member of the Dramatists Guild for 40 years. During that time, she wrote her own plays, adapted Sophocles, wrote and scored musicals and re-imagined her poetry for the stage. She collaborated with actor/director Godfrey Cambridge on Cabaret for Freedom, a musical revue in 1960, and went on to act in Jean Genet’s The Blacks in 1961. In 1972, her screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia became the first produced script written by a black woman and when Miramax hired her in 1998 to direct Down in the Delta, she became the first black woman to direct a major studio film.

Her list of firsts is varied and impressive, including writing and reciting her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, but that list doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of who she was. Like many African American women writers, I learned how to do my job from Maya Angelou. No, she didn’t teach me how to write. She did something much harder to define. She showed me how to be a writer. She showed me how to be deeply rooted in, and unapologetically reflective of, the African American community that had nurtured and sustained me and from that unshakeable foundation, how to embrace the whole, messy, miraculous human family to which we all belong by birth and by faith.

She showed me how to marry my activism to my art and nurture that passionate union in a way that strengthens both. She showed me how to make the deepest truths accessible to busy, distracted, hardworking people and to share and honor their pleasure at the power of a poem or a play to change their lives when they expect it least and need it most. Her belief in the transformative power of language was the bedrock upon which she constructed her life’s wholeness and the gift she shared with those of us fortunate enough to call her friend.

She invited me into that tight friendship circle the first time I encountered her in the Atlanta home of renowned black scholar and cultural critic, Dr. Richard Long. As a young writer, still finding my way and my voice, I was awed and more than a little intimidated at the chance to meet the woman whose book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings had shown us what real truth telling can and must be. That book gave me a bone deep understanding of how serious I had to take this writing journey if I was going to be worthy of those who had walked it long before I came on the scene.

I was sort of hovering around the edges of the gathering when Dr. Long took me by the hand and led me into the kitchen to meet the guest of honor who, he said, had sent him to fetch me. She looked up from where she was stirring a steaming pot of something that smelled delicious and smiled like she had been waiting just for me.

“Well,” she said, coming around to hug me, “there you are. How is your work going?”

To my amazement, I was able to give her a coherent answer and within a minute or two, found myself engaged in conversation with Maya AngelouMaya Angelou!about writing!

Unlike most of the writers I know, Maya was comfortable talking about her process and yours. She loved the hard work of writing as much as she loved the finished product and would often rent a modest hotel room to work uninterrupted. She was a person who could make words sing on the printed page without benefit of one note of music. Her poems especially are deceptive in their directness and simplicity, like a conversation conducted on a front stoop or a porch swing. They have the quiet intensity of late-night true confessions and the glorious whoop of Sunday celebration. From the first word, she draws her reader, her audience, into the specificity of her story then makes it so expansive, so inclusive, so fully human, that the story becomes our own.

She was an amazing woman and a great friend/mentor/guide/comrade. She was funny, with a laugh that made you finally understand that laughing to keep from crying is always a good strategy, no matter how serious the situation you are facing. It is hard to believe that it has been five years since she transitioned peacefully with the same grace that was always hers in life. In this moment of remembering, I am moved to celebrate her living, not mourn her passing. I am moved to remember her truth and her passion and her laughter as well as her incandescent writing. I am moved to sort through all those photographs, searching for that smile, and knowing without a shadow of a doubt that she is dancing with the angels.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was best known for her memoirs and poetry, including her 1969 autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Angelou also wrote numerous plays and musicals. In addition to her Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize nominations, Angelou’s many awards and recognitions include the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou joined the Dramatists Guild in 1978.

Pearl Cleage
Pearl Cleage

 is Distinguished Artist in Residence at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. She serves as the city’s Poet Laureate and is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild and the 2022 Paul Robeson Award from the Actors’ Equity Association and the Actors’ Equity Foundation.