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.”
In my discussions with Angelou, she often disagreed with our stance on some issues but was keenly aware of the value of having a different viewpoint. Though our paths were perhaps different, she had the courage to look into our souls and see within them a sincere desire to advance the cause of freedom. “Freedom,” she said to me often, “is the right to express what you believe.”
Thus, it was no surprise when she called me in the midst of the Thomas confirmation controversy and told me she planned to endorse his candidacy. Angelou also looked out into the Black community and saw it consuming itself with self-hatred, violence and ingrained victimization. She felt that the exemplary value of having Thomas on the high court was potentially transformative, especially given his non-mainstream political views.
She also saw an American society being rent by the claws of a racial monster more horrible yet than the fearsome beasts of a bygone Pleistocene epoch. Her response was unity. This took an unbelievable amount of courage given her reputation and personal viewpoints. While many “armchair revolutionaries” scrambled for a rock to slither under during those contentious times, in endorsing Thomas, Angelou chose to stand on the rock of principle instead—the principle of unity and inclusiveness.
Moreover, Angelou was, if nothing else, constantly humbled by the possibility of her own ignorance. She saw the ultimate logic of time and evolution as being wiser in the end than she was. She had a sincere belief that something good would come of Thomas’ tenure on the court and trusted God enough to become a servant of history despite her personal reservations.
I last visited with Angelou at her home May 9, a few weeks before she passed. In an interview I conducted with her for American Current-See magazine, she discussed her evolving “practice” of becoming a better person. Chief among those self-improvement projects was learning to forgive.
“I’ve learned that forgiving is one of the greatest gifts that I can give myself. When I forgive other people,” she said. “I let them go, I free them from my ignorance. And as soon as I do, I feel lighter, brighter and better.” Angelou, with all of her achievements, her accolades, her life experience, nonetheless gained ultimate joy from harvesting these nuggets of insight and wisdom.
As we stood in her sculpture garden that lovely May 9 afternoon, she seemed so full of life. She was excited about an annual Fourth of July white party she would be hosting later in the summer. She made Xavier Underwood and I (my director of social media, who joined me for the meeting) promise we would attend. I remember kidding with my friend, famed neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson (who was with us at her home), that he would miss out on all the fun because of a planned trip to New Zealand. He turned to me in his wistful, quiet way, and without any trace of affectation in his voice, he said, “Armstrong, I will not be in attendance at the party. And neither will you, or she.”
He went on to explain that all his years of practicing medicine had trained him to sense when a person is nearing the end. He explained that Angelou was suffering a terminal illness and would likely die within a few weeks.
I was still no less shocked and deeply saddened when, true to Carson’s prediction, she passed away less than a month later.
Armstrong Williams is on Sirius/XM Powe 110,6-7 p.m. and 4-5a.m., Monday through Friday and S.C. WGCV 4-5 p.m. Become a fan on Facebook and Follow him on Twitter