She stood six feet tall you know, so even leaning on her cane she loomed over us on the stage. The three of us– myself, and the only two kids in the shelter who cared who she was, sat up in the center balcony which she was quick to refer to as the colored section in the theaters of old. To see anything, a janitor sweeping the floor, or dust motes swirling in the spotlight, is a treasure at Ruby Diamond Auditorium on the Florida State Campus. My sister worked there for a time and I remember her saying she watched Ray Charles from the rafters, but maybe I made that up?
It is a vaulted theater with red carpeted stairs and and I don’t care who you are- it has to feel special to take that stage.
The kids I brought, a 13 year-old boy and a 14 year-old girl, both black, bright, and abandoned at the time, made such a ruckus when she came to center stage that she put her hand over her eyes and peered up at us and said, “It’s good to hear the children up there. Children need to be heard more.” So before she even started she had accomplished what she was known for, shining a light on the overlooked, and finding joy out there in a miserly world.
After that, we settled in and listened to her, the whole audience so in love, so seduced by her words and her low, bawdy chuckle when she spoke of the sexy sway of a woman’s back. We sat there in the dark, blushing, or at least I know I did. I remember thinking to myself, so overly self aware, that getting my shit together to bring these two kids to see her might likely be the pinnacle of my professional life, if not more.
After the show, the kids dragged me around to the back door to wait for her exit to a waiting limousine. There was a knotted crowd, enthusiastic hard-cores who couldn’t get enough of whatever poured off of her. There was a corridor taped off, to keep the crowd at a respectful distance. While people were snapping pictures, and telling her they loved her, she waved and smiled that broad grin with a mouth full of big teeth. She turned her back to the car and squatted her aging lanky frame behind the tinted window and there was one of the kids– the girl, right in the car with her, hugging her neck! Being a kid raised in a nightmare of public systems she understood the power of forgiveness over permission. They shared a word, just the two of them, before the mortified security team gently hustled my charge back to me. I just shrugged at the officer, like, “What do you expect me to do? Kids man!”
So that is my Maya Angelou story, and I’m just so sad she’s gone.