by Carol Alexander
It was Wednesday, May 28, 2014 when the news that “a great tree has fallen”, Dr. Maya Angelou whose branches spread around the globe and her leaves of love, words and grace shaded over many. Maya was tall and graceful as a great oak tree, with long reaching arms like oak branches and as colorful as the oak trees seasonal array of leaves. Her words inspired all who read, her insight reached deep beyond most understanding, her everreaching and teaching love amassed a “family” as she would say, “ …you are black and white, short and tall, Christian and Jewish and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight,…you are all my family.”
I was blessed to be part of that “family” that she gathered every Thanksgiving and sometimes on July 4th for a white party at her home in Winston Salem, N.C. Attending those gatherings were some of the most phenomenal yet regular people on the globe.
There were those from the world of art and music, those from the world of academia, those from various professional and labor worlds, but everyone that gathered was famous to Dr. Maya, as I called her. She endearingly called me by my full name Carol Alexander in her deep reverberating voice and that made me feel famous. She gathered us to share, laugh, and love each other as she was always teaching us to be family. Now, the “family” is embracing and supporting each other since our matriarch is not with us but looking over us. We would have never been connected or touched each other if it had not been for Dr. Maya. This past Saturday we all gathered in Winston Salem, NC to celebrate the quintessential ‘Phenomenal Woman’, Dr. Maya Angelou.
Once we passed tight security into the Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, an enormous spirit was present. The simple, yet elegant Wait Chapel became the sanctuary for; A Celebration of Rising “Joy”! The Homegoing of Dr. Maya Angelou.As we gathered and greeted each other, the melodic sounds of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Ensemble set a classical tone celebrating of a classical woman. Dr. Maya was a woman of the world and the people gathered and the services were a canvas of that world. She was classical, spiritual, poetic, political, musical, humorous and family oriented. All those elements were reflected in the service. Huge pictures of her flanked the alter along with two of her profoundquotations. She was there spiritually and we felt her.
Officiating was her Winston Salem pastor Dr. Serenus T. Churn, Sr. of Mount Zion Baptist Church. The service participants included her son Guy Johnson, grandsons, Colin Johnson and Elliott Jones, Ambassador Andrew Young, Ms. Cicely Tyson, The Honorable Bill Clinton, Ms. Lee Ann Womack, Ms. Allyson Williams, Ms. Oprah Winfrey, Mr. Bebe and Marvin Winans & Choir, Mr. Bobby Jones and Bobby Jones Gospel Choir, Mrs. Michelle Obama and Mrs. Valerie Simpson. There were so many other luminaries paying tribute including Robin Roberts, Michael Eric Dyson, Lynn Whitfield, Gayle King, Donna Brazille, Common, Freddie Jackson and so many more.
Actress Cicely Tyson’s storytelling reflections were both historic and priceless. She spoke about meeting Maya Angelou for the first time in 1960 while they were performing in ‘The Blacks’, with luminaries Abbey Lincoln, Godfrey Cambridge and Roscoe Lee Brown. Ms. Tyson recounted hearing this booming voice behind her thinking it must be the boss. When Maya stood in front of her Ms. Tyson said motioning her eyes in a theatrical way, ‘I started at her feet, than her knees, her shoulders, her head…..and since that day we have been sister friends. It is difficult to lose a rock.” Maya called her every day while she was performing in ‘A Trip to Bountiful’ on Broadway this year and surprised Ms. Tyson traveling all the way to NY in her bus to view the show.
Dr. Maya loved country music and she has coined lyrics for a few country artists. Country artist Lee Ann Womack performed a beautiful musical tribute entitled I Hope You Dance accompanied by guitar and violins.
Former President Bill Clinton said he was first introduced to Maya Angelou when he read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings during his first year of law school. He later met her and requested her to present at his inauguration. He just saw her a month prior to her transition in Texas and was surprised that she had traveled so far. As he greeted her expressing his pleasant surprise to see her, she responded, “…just because I am wheel chair bound, does not mean I can’t get around”. That was Dr. Maya profound and always poetic.
Dr. Maya loved….loved music. She was a singer herself and at home you could always hear her booming throaty Negro spirituals or old gospels. Gospel artists such as Alyson Williams, Dr. Bobby Jones, Marvin and Bebe Winans and others paid tribute through song. One can only imagine her saying in her earthy voice, “sing children, sing.”
The spirit in the room was filled as First Lady Michelle Obama was introduced. Mrs. Obama spoke of the first time she read Dr. Maya Angelou and how the poem ‘Phenomenal Women’ brought pride to black women speaking of our beautiful curves and ‘Still I Rise’ taught us about strength and the ability to continue striving.
To us Oprah Winfrey is a famous TV personality. To Dr. Maya, Oprah was a daughter. She has been sitting at Maya’s feet listening to her wisdom since she was in her 20’s. “There was never a time when I spoke to her that I did not take notes, up to the Sunday before she passed”, Oprah shared. “It hurts so deep”, speaking of not ever again hearing Dr. Maya say to her “Hello you darling girl.” Oprah’s personal loss will be great but knowing Maya showed her love and gratitude in many ways will bring her comfort.
Guy Bailey Johnson, Dr. Angelou’s only son, who now sits in a wheel chair, the results of complications from an automobile accident over 50 years ago in Egypt. An author in his own right and genetically an occasional poet, he wrote a wonderful poem in 1991 to his grandmother Vivian Baxter and his mother that was in the memorial program book entitled ‘The Last Oasis’.
Valerie Simpson is another of Dr. Maya’s close spiritual daughters, as well as, her late husband Nick Ashford. The husband and wife musical duo recorded an album of original music and poetry with Dr. Angelou in 1996 which was played at the service. Valerie Simpson pianist and vocalist performed a song she and her husband wrote entitled Remember Me which was immensely moving and powerful.
The Rev., Dr. Churn eulogized Dr. Maya Angelou, a great woman, a great church member and his great friend. His words were powerfully engaging, spiritually comforting to the family and brought to those who listened words of faith and understanding.
The repast at the Graylyn Manor was another great celebration, the last for Oprah to coordinate for her “Mama”. Bebe Winans as the MC brought to the stage Oprah, Susan Taylor, India Arie, Rev. Barbara King, George Faison and many more. But the spirit exploded when Dr. Shirley Cesar preached and sang sharing her anointed spirit.
Dr. Maya touched many and made many more feel and know they were special. Feeling blessed to have been in her presence, watching her and having been taught many lessons some painful, she made me realize I am a phenomenal woman and since I am God’s child, I will always wear my dancing shoes. We left knowing now why the caged bird sings and now the caged bird is free.
“I’ve learned that people well forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Dr. Maya Angelou