Oola and I and a few ex-convicts who still remember were saddened to hear of the death of Maya Angelou. Here is a story we all shared in.
In the early nineties I was working as a fine arts administrator at the Northern California Women’s Facility in Stockton, CA. (This was about the time Oola was born.)
A community women’s organization got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to bring writers into my program. Among them were Tillie Olsen, Joan Baez (the mother), and Maya Angelou. My job was to clear the administrative hurdles in the prison to make the visits run smoothly. Everyone was excited about the visits of all the authors, but especially they were aflutter about meeting Ms. Angelou.
One afternoon, shortly before the visit, my clerk came into the art room laughing her *** off. “Ms. Dove” she spurted, “Do you know why so many inmates are signing up for this talk. They think that the great painter Michelangelo is coming! I just had to tell someone he’s been DEAD for 400 years!”
The evening of the visit came. I escorted our guests to the chapel, which was filled to overflowing — I had done my best to disabuse the population of the sculptor/painter’s visit.
Ms. Angelo was the personification of dignity, elegance, authority, and kindness. And she was funny. Her audience roared at stories from her life; I still remember her telling of first imbibing Silovitz (“WHITE lightening”) during a dancing tour in Eastern Europe. Skillfully she brought her stories around to the concept of true humility — not saying or thinking “I can’t; I’m not good enough.” But proclaiming through one’s existence, “I am, and this is what I am.” Her message couldn’t have been better targeted or presented to the women in that room.
Now, part of the audience was non-inmate. Most of us were in the standing-room-only section. But there were a small number of us “civilians” who wanted to bask in Ms. Angelo’s light. In particular I remember a chaplain wagging his annoying tail feathers. Ms. Angelo deftly handled the situation as she was walking back down the aisle. She directed the audience’s attention to those of us who had done all the work and were standing quietly by the door. She pointed us out as examples of true humility. I felt myself wrapped in her warm embrace.