Commentary by Laurie Triplette
Listen to yourself, and in that quietude, you might hear the voice of God.” (Maya Angelou’s last tweet, Friday, May 23, 2014)
Maya Angelou is gone.
She died yesterday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C, at age 86, leaving one son, one grandson and two great-grandchildren.
This is a big deal for those of us who follow poets and biographers like some people follow rock stars. It’s an even bigger deal for those of us who are females from a certain place at a certain time.
I had dinner with Maya once, when she first came to Winston-Salem between 1981 and 1982 to teach at Wake Forest University. It was perhaps the loveliest dinner party I ever attended.
The intimate affair was hosted by a notorious art professor and his companion, and we guests were like an Agatha Christie lineup: Maya, who had turned the writing world on its literary ear; an eccentric English professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts, who was famous in museum circles for his part-time work as a costume conservator; the scandalously young, second wife of a famous portrait painter whose ex-wife of 50 years was still in town; and me, the corporate art curator and freelance writer whose husband traveled for a living.
Maya was a fabulous dinner companion that night, subtly extracting stories and opinions from us all. Her hypnotically resonant, cadenced voice sounded like music.
The scuttlebutt around town already had Maya pegged as a potential permanent fixture. And it came true: She was appointed lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest.
Some of the university’s old-style PhD’s — all male — were outraged that a high school graduate and a former prostitute could be named to an academic position. They never mentioned her lengthy resume as dancer, singer, actress, writer, teacher, and civil rights leader proficient in about six languages, who could quote Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, and who knew Langston Hughes.
Winston-Salem during the 1980s was an exciting place to live for anyone connected to the arts. Home to the first arts council in America and four colleges, it also still boasted four Fortune 500 corporate headquarters, and more millionaires per capita than almost any other place in America.
And it reflected the nobler potential for racial reconciliation so badly needed in our country. Home to professionals and blue-collar workers flourishing in both the white and black communities, the town hosted a thriving, internationally acclaimed black film festival. Local Delta Sigma Theta Sorority alumnae supported an arts and humanities center, whose programming and events not only kept children-at-risk off the streets, but also educated all races about African American cultural contributions in America.
It was never a big deal in that town of 140,000 to see celebrities of all ethnic backgrounds, including Oprah jogging down Fourth Street, or Herbie Hancock running into the Krispie Kreme for hot donuts.
This was the avante-garde New South environment that Maya joined after vowing for decades that she would never return South. Forever after, she alternated between her New York townhouse and her two lovely homes in Winston-Salem.
I have often thought about the Maya-bashing tirade spewed at me by one of those misogynistic intellectual snobs one afternoon in 1982. The joke was on him: Her ever-widening fame shone a radiant light on the university and on a town that later struggled in the aftermath of corporate mergers and loss of financial wealth.
Maya’s classes were always full.
VERY BRIEF RECAP OF MAYA ANGELOU’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
- 36 books, including 7 autobiographies, three plays, volumes of poetry, children’s books, two cookbooks, and collections of essays
- High school graduate with over 50 honorary degrees, who proudly claimed the title Dr. Angelou
- Three Grammys
- Pulitzer Prize nomination
- Tony nomination
- National Medal of Arts honoree, 2000
- Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, 2010
Laurie Triplette writes the special feature “On Cooking Southern” for HottyToddy.com. She is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists.