“There’s nothing that I don’t love about my life. It’s a struggle, but that’s life. That’s why they call it life.” – Dr. Maya Angelou
Dr. Maya Angelou was EVERYTHING! And, she did EVERYTHING! She was a singer, a dancer, a writer, an activist, a poet, a speaker, a mother – you name it and Maya Angelou had done it. Not only had she done it, she’d done it exceptionally well. There are very few people that I look up to in awe in this world and Dr. Maya Angelou was one of those people. She was a living MONUMENT!
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Angelou for the first time when I was in college. My organization, The Men of Impact, hosted her speech in one of our larger auditoriums at the University of Illinois – Champaign-Urbana. Foellinger Auditorium was sold out and we were getting anxious because the good Doctor was late and the students & faculty that had come to see her were getting restless.
Alas, my friend, Dorian Warren and I greeted Dr. Angelou as she finally arrived at the bottom of the steps of Foellinger (the only way to get into the building at the time). Dr. Angelou was fabulously dressed in a floor length mink coat and black ensemble underneath, but she looked tired. “I have to climb all of these stairs?” she asked. Dorian and I responded that it was the only way into the auditorium. She said, “Oh my! The driver has been lost in the God-forsaken town for hours, but let’s do it.”
With that she began to climb the stairs along with our assistance. When she got to the top of the stairs, I was even more anxious because clearly she was not in a position to go on stage and give her speech. She then said, “Please show me to my dressing room. I need ten minutes.” We had someone show her backstage to her dressing room while we alerted everyone that the speech would start in ten minutes although I didn’t believe it.
I took my seat in the audience and like clockwork ten minutes later there she was bounding onstage arms outstretched greeting the packed house like she could run a marathon. I fell in LOVE with Maya Angelou that day. Her speech was brilliant, encouraging, challenging, eloquent, inspiring, – I could go on. It was the sweetness of summer watermelon mixed with the just-right amount of the frank reality of winter’s cold. She told us that we had to do the work to live a life of purpose. Our lives were like a “po-em” and she recited from memory so many of her great ones to inspire us further.
Following the speech, we hosted an intimate reception for Dr. Angelou. There, she graciously granted many of us some one-on-one time. During my time, she asked, “Young man, what do you intend to do with your life.” I replied, “I’m going to law school next year.” She said, “No, what do you intend to DO with your life.” I hadn’t thought about it that deeply and she could tell from my long pause.
She left me with this, “Whatever you do with your life, remember this: you must be tough and tender. If you’re not tough, you will never get anywhere. If you’re not tender, you’ll never stay.” Those words are my mantra and I have lived by them for the twenty years since that first encounter. Dr. Angelou was tough and tender.
I would later have the privilege of producing a show completely dedicated to Dr. Angelou called, Leading Women. It was a series I produced that profiled prominent African-American women and their accomplishments that aired on Centric/BET. While watching the rough cuts of the episode, I was moved to tears countless times as she recounted her stories with Dr. King, Malcolm X and all of the great colors of her exceptional life.
Because of Dr. Angelou and the show I was able to meet my other role model of the ages, Oprah Winfrey. The episode went on to be nominated for a NAACP Image Award (losing to President Obama’s first Inauguration coverage) and was highly acclaimed not because of anything we did, but simply because of Dr. Angelou’s presence, words and wisdom.
We hosted a reception for the show at her home in Harlem and it was beyond surreal to literally sit at her feet. We all soaked in more stories. More words of wisdom. More greatness in her VERY colorful home just blocks away from my own. That evening of celebration, ranks at the top experiences of my life and I will be forever grateful to Dr. Angelou for allowing us there.
To say Dr. Angelou was a great woman is an understatement. To say that she was a wise woman sells her short. To say that Dr. Angelou lived an extraordinary life tells only part of the story. To truly understand the magnum force of nature that was and is Dr. Maya Angelou is to be in her presence. I was blessed with that honor on more occasions than I deserved, but each time my life changed. Each time my spirit grew. Each time I saw a greater understanding of what it meant to live. Her presence was like a colossal living and breathing monument to life.
I will miss her being in the present and physical world. But, I will hear her words like I do every day the rest of my life for she truly left a blueprint for how to live your best life. One of my favorite quotes of hers sums up my experiences with Dr. Angelou: “”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She made me feel powerful, purposed and privileged. She made me feel PHENOMENAL!
Rest in Paradise Dr. Angelou. Thank you! Thank you! THANK YOU!!!
“I am a Woman