I had the opportunity to listen to Maya Angelou on February 28, 2010, at a one-hour talk she gave at Ohio State University. I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies, finishing my dissertation. I’d grown cynical of intellectual celebrity and was a bit seduced, if not confused, by some of the orthodoxies of university teaching fads and ideas.
I was prepared to scoff at this larger than life poet and her adoring fanatics.
Her presence alone captured my immediate attention and respect and changed my mood. She was taller than I expected. She wore a finely draped black dress, pulling across her elegant waist, with a string of pearls around her neck. She seemed like a giant, a goddess, with a face and disposition as maternal and warm as it was fierce and spirited. She wore a brace on her right hand.
Her talk was mostly autobiographical. She spoke carefully and with erudition. Her words and memories were filled with verse, in various languages, stretching from Classical Antiquity to her own compositions. There was nothing arrogant about this, her confidence was quiet and well earned.
She spoke of memory and counter-memory, all too familiar themes, but she did more than say these things: she showed the discipline and love of memorization through recitation, often with eyes closed, evidence of a full heart. “This is a professor,” I thought to myself. She professed, preached, proclaimed.
Her talk was steeped in the prophetic Black tradition. It was baptized, immersed in religious imagery. There was nothing secular about it. This was church and she spoke more truth about the human condition than all the supposedly “social” science I was surrounded by.
She was there as a teacher, an artist. I would soon thereafter take great delight and inspiration from reading her humane interview at Paris Review. Because of her talk, I frequently require rote memorization in my classes — a faux pas in today’s classroom.
There was suffering to be accounted for — racism and misogyny and more — and she made no effort to avoid it. Yet she invoked no cliche’s or easy ideologies, she simply told her story and convicted us all. And there was joy. Laughter, her beautiful laughter.
When the hour was up, and exactly right on time, I knew I had been changed. Softened a bit and hardened, too. Less cynical. More resolved than ever to be a professor who is willing to take the risk to profess and confess.
She was a beautiful witness to me of something all too rare these days: a teacher. I will miss her.
Godspeed, Maya Angelou! May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.