Maya Angelou’s memoirs, essay and poetry collections, and cookbooks have sold millions of copies. Now, Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration offers an unusual and irresistible look at her life and her myriad interests and accomplishments. Created by the people who know her best—her longtime friends Marcia Ann Gillespie and Richard A. Long, and her niece Rosa Johnson Butler—it captures Angelou at home, at work, and in the public eye. Listeners who have come to know and love Maya Angelou will be surprised and delighted by this personal portrait of the renowned poet, author, playwright, and humanitarian.
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Marcia Ann Gillespie, a longtime friend of Dr. Angelou’s, was the editor in chief of Essence magazine from 1971 to 1980 and of Ms. magazine from 1993 to 2002. She lives in New York City and is currently working on her memoir.
Rosa Johnson Butler is Dr. Angelou’s niece and archivist. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Richard A. Long has known Dr. Angelou for more than thirty years. He is the Atticus Haygood Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Emeritus, at Emory University. He lives in Atlanta.
I hope to look through my life at life. I want to use what has happened to me—is happening to me—to see what human beings are like. —Maya Angelou (1992)
She’s the tall, imposing cocoa-skinned woman standing in the winter’s chill, the poet reminding the nation and its leaders of the fragility of our planet, the wonder of life, the hope of humankind at William Jefferson Clinton’s first inauguration as President of the United States. She’s the writer sharing hard-earned wisdom, humorous and painful truths and powerful affirmations, urging her readers to laugh, to dare, to strive, to dream, to love, to say Yes! to life. The autobiographer whose frank thoughtful sharing of her life’s journey continues to captivate, challenge, and inspire readers of all ages around the world. The much sought after speaker urging her audiences to own their truths, claim their voices, and fully embrace their lives. Calling us to higher ground, her words nurture our spirits, stretch our minds, and stir our hearts. Her messages affirm our shared humanity, the human experience, and the sacredness of life. We laugh and rejoice with her. She challenges us and calls us to love ourselves and one another, to live fully, savor life, and embrace our potential. Her voice—hot chocolate smooth, melodious and welcoming—holds listeners spellbound. Her laughter starts deep, envelopes, and invites us all to share the joy.
Her name is Maya Angelou.
And hers is a rich life. She’s danced and sung in theaters and nightclubs, acted, written, and directed works for the stage, television, and film. She’s a college professor, serious scholar, and a generous mentor. She’s the loving mother of one son, a proud grandmother, and wise, doting great-grandmother. She’s a woman with a grand passion for life that she’s shared with husbands and soulmates, with family, chosen kin, and an enduring ever-expanding circle of friends; she lives the life she sings about on the page to the fullest. Her homes, elegantly appointed, always welcoming and comfortable, abound with hundreds of books and the art that she’s collected all of her adult life. Her skill in the kitchen is the stuff of legend—from haute cuisine to down-home comfort food—and the source of great pleasure for both the cook and those invited to share. At her table God is always thanked, food savored, laughter and rich talk encouraged. She revels in gathering folk around her, in her home, at her table, ever welcoming.
Now, as she steps into the eightieth year of her life, she remains as curious and zestful as a young woman, maintaining a schedule that many people half her age would find daunting. She spends weeks traveling the blue highways of America in her customized bus en route to speaking engagements before audiences ranging from children and college students, to folks from all walks of life. Wherever she goes there are always interviews to be given; television and radio appearances; book signings; meetings with local officials, community groups, activists, writers and artists, but she always finds time to share laughter and break bread with friends old and new.
Ever the writer, disciplined and focused, whether on the road or at home, she works at her craft. She writes in longhand on yellow legal pads, poetry and prose in constant progress. She is the creator of a very successful, special collection of products for Hallmark that ranges from greeting cards to decorative accessories in the sumptuous fabrics and jewel colors that she loves. Her passion for theater and film is undiminished. There are always directing, acting, writing projects in the mix or on her to-do list. And then there’s her work as a distinguished professor at Wake Forest University in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, where she holds a lifetime chair and students vie for admission to her seminar series.
The woman who never attended college has been the recipient of dozens of honorary degrees in recognition of all her accomplishments and takes due pride in being called Dr. Angelou. A serious scholar and formidable intellectual thinker, she’s ever curious, open to learning, to new ideas, to questions. She’s a voracious and eclectic reader and a connoisseur of libraries. She is multilingual, fluent in French, Spanish, Fanti, Italian, and Arabic—a reflection of a native gift, a highly tuned ear and appreciation for the nuances of language, and of her keen desire to live in the world.
Living in the world also means working to improve the quality of life on the planet. She is and has long been a tireless activist lending support to efforts to improve the lives of women and children, championing education, racial, gender, social, and economic justice, human rights, and peace.
She’s a woman, an African American woman, a Renaissance woman in the truest sense of the word.
Her name is Maya Angelou.
When at home in her primary residence in Winston-Salem, Maya Angelou often sits at a table strategically placed in a nook midway between her open kitchen and formal dining and living rooms. The many cookbooks that she’s collected throughout the years are on shelves in easy reach. From her seat at the table Maya can easily turn to check on the activity in her kitchen, reminding her housekeeper to stir a pot or instructing her on how to season a dish. It’s where she reads correspondence, handles many of her business affairs, often chats with friends and family and shares in formal meals. She always keeps a deck of cards close for the many games of solitaire—played to occupy her “Little Mind” and free up her “big mind.” There are always books around—her own and those of others—to be read or signed, shared or referenced, and yellow legal pads, personalized stationery, and pens close at hand. Among the books there are three well-thumbed constants: a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a Bible. A beautifully wrought ceramic angel with a beaming smile, a gift from her son Guy, stands sentinel.
Her table sits close to a multi-windowed wall offering a clear view of the many tall trees, the natural and carefully landscaped beauty of her grounds. At the base of the window photographs of her biological and chosen family cluster, smiling faces and group shots, in varying life stages. But her chair faces the nook’s narrow, rouge- red wall, a space she has reserved to honor and remember three of her ancestors. Their photographs quietly dominate the space. To the left there is her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, a study in serenity; to the right her mother, Vivian Baxter, her vivacious spirit shining through; and below, the solemn, unflinching gaze of her paternal great-grandmother, Kentucky Shannon: three women, all iron-willed, powerful spirits, who in their time dared to stand their ground and claim their lives. Maya Angelou never forgets the people who gave her life, the bloodline she shares, the spiritual legacy she carries.
Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery. When freedom came she claimed her independence by choosing to rename herself Kentucky Shannon. Generations later her great-granddaughter would chose to rename herself when setting her face to the future. When she was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, her parents, Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter Johnson, named her Marguerite. She was their second child. A son, whom they named Bailey after his father, had been born a year earlier.
Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a son of the rural South, one among the legions of Black migrants drawn north to escape the South’s blatant, violent oppression and in search of a better life. Her mother, born and raised in St. Louis, was every inch an urban woman. She, one of two daughters surrounded by four brothers, was smart and sassy, sophisticated and daring. Nothing and no one ever seemed to intimidate her. Vivian Baxter was a woman ahead of her time. Her father was the younger of two sons. He was big and handsome and also a bit of a cynic, whose mannered speech and personal style reflected his desire to distance himself from his rural southern roots. Vivian and Bailey’s daughter would inherit her parents’ magnetic personalities, their powerful egos, and their strong independent streaks.
When Marguerite was still a babe in arms the young family packed their bags and headed west. Her parents must have dazzled each other when they met and married in St. Louis, but their tumultuous union imploded in California. Perhaps the qualities that drew them to each other also tore them apart. After the marriage collapsed, the three–year–old Marguerite and her brother, Bailey, were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother.
They put me and my brother on a train, without any companionship, without any adult, put tags on our arms, and said, “This child should be delivered to Miss Annie Henderson in Stamps, Ark.” ...
For years I thought what they’d done was a terrible thing, but then I found out that Bailey and I were just part of a legion of black children whose parents had taken them out of the South thinking that things would be better for them. Unfortunately that wasn’t always so, and the parents would send the children back south to their grandparents, while the parents scuffled and sweated trying to make a better life . . .
—As told to Marcia Ann Gillespie
Stamps was a small rural community, two communities really, one Black the other White, warily coinciding under the toxic strictures of segregation. The Black folks in Stamps were tight-knit; they all knew each other. They shared memories, history, and often blood. They had few worldly possessions and struggled to make do, but they were sustained by a thriving folk culture, a rich spiritual life, and a powerful, finely tuned sense of community.
Annie Henderson was an extraor...
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