By Veronica Mackey
I don’t recall the exact year that I drove to UC Irvine to see Dr. Maya Angelou. I only knew this was a moment I did not want to miss. I didn’t invite anyone else, not wanting to risk someone making me late. The auditorium was packed, no doubt, with scores of writers like myself, hoping for words of wisdom, some magical advice to make them great and Pulitzer Prize-worthy.
She came on stage like the royal queen she was. Strong, vibrant, full of life and laughter, greeting us in that voice that could not be mistaken for anyone else’s—a female-sounding James Earl Jones.
She sang, told stories and soothed our souls with her poetry and prose. She spoke of many things: her challenging childhood, how she was raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, how when a mob beat him to death for the crime after she testified, she didn’t speak again for 6 years.
Her advice to writers was straight, no chaser: “What you need to do,” she said, “is find yourself a mean hotel room. I mean ugly. Find a room with no windows and take the pictures off the wall and just write. Because if you can write there, you can write anywhere.” Inspiration, she said, comes from within.
The author, actress, activist, and one of America’s best loved poets found her own inspiration in paying it forward, teaching and mentoring younger generations, most notably Oprah Winfrey. On her Facebook page on May 28 (the date of Angelou’s death), Winfrey wrote:
“I've been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister, and friend since my 20’s. She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her.”
Angelou spoke six languages, won three Grammy Awards and wrote and recited "On the Pulse of Morning"—one of her most famous works—at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.
Her highly acclaimed collection, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die.”
Gaining prominence as a singer in the mid-1950s, and later as a writer, Angelou opened the door for up-and-coming artists. Friend and fellow poet Nikki Giovanni remembers Angelou as being positive and upbeat:
“In all my years of knowing her, I only heard her once speak ill of someone and that was well deserved…We only have to look at her life to see that she took every ounce of joy life had to offer.”
Angelou died of unknown causes in her home in Winston-Salem, leaving behind a son, Guy B. Johnson. She was 86.