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Paying tribute to Maya Angelou

Armstrong Williams | 6/5/2014, 4:10 p.m.
Armstrong Williams

I first met Maya Angelou over 27 years ago when she became a client of B&C Associates International, a public relations firm located in High Point, N.C., in 1986. I had worked at the firm in my early days as vice president for government and international affairs and served as Angelou’s publicist for several years. I enjoyed the honor and privilege of travelling the country with her extensively. In the course of spending time together, we developed a close bond of friendship, and that bond remained intact until the time she died early last week.

Angelou was a towering figure of the civil rights era, a literary giant and, in recent years, an elder stateswoman among the current generation of world leaders. As poet laureate of the United States, she spoke movingly about a land inhabited once by dinosaurs, whose brittle bones became the foundation of the inclusive nation and society that we now inhabit. Her expansive gaze touched upon the original names of indigenous people who had roamed the land before America was born, and she helped reconcile their legacies with the more recent migrants—those who came to escape oppression in Europe or those dragged in chains from Africa and subsequently freed.

Angelou’s wise message was one of inclusiveness and transcendence. She did not shy away from the controversies of our nation’s founding moments. She confronted them head on, and yet she found a way to weave them into a call to unity and purpose.

“But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully/ 

Come, you may stand upon my/

Back and face your distant destiny/, 

But seek no haven in my shadow.”

In her inaugural poem, she navigated the rock and the tree and the river—features of a lush poetic landscape—with a dogged narrative born of genius and courage, forged by her grandmother and her brother Balif. It was this courageous sense of wonder at the vastness of history that formed the basis of her decision to endorse the 1991 Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, a man whose political views seemed to be almost diametrically opposite to her own. Many who knew her well vigorously disagreed with her stance, but none could object that her reasons for endorsing Thomas were of her own design, nor could it be denied she arrived at her decision through rigorous consideration—and not the knee-jerk cynicism and bombastic acrimony that dominated Thomas’ confirmation.

Angelou’s endorsement, more than any other, made it possible for Southern senators to vote in favor of the Thomas confirmation, virtually assuring his ultimate transcendence. Her impeccable credentials as a freedom crier, a cultural icon and a Pan-Africanist (in the broadest sense) gave her endorsement a gravitas that distinguished it from the mainstream Black political leadership at the time. But it was also her relationships with Black conservatives like myself and Bob Brown that provided her with insight into Thomas’ possible motivations and loyalties.

During our time working together, she and I had often talked about my “mentor,” Thomas, and how our views about race and rights of citizenship were being marginalized by the mainstream media. She truly understood where we were coming from when we voiced our displeasure with the codification of race, whether it be Jim Crow or affirmative action. We believed, and continue to believe, in the concept recently voiced by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”