On the 14th of July 2004, I missed the rare privilege of meeting Maya Angelou at the oversubscribed The Harlem Book Fair, which marked the 6th anniversary of the biggest global book fair that year: it was celebrated with fun fair and apiary of activities: readings, music, story-telling, book-signings, it was also a colourful occasion to ‘meet and greet’ world-acclaimed authors, spoken word poets of all genres – haiku, Cinquains, ballads, infrequent sonnets, free verse poets. The Harlem Book Fair adulates African American cultures, literary accomplishments and intellectual prowess. The Fair attracted more than 55,000 visitors, writers, publishers, guests and exhibitors. It covered two avenue-long blocks along West 135th Street, which sandwiched Fifth Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard. The large crowd and gaudy logistics made it difficult for me to meet and greet Maya Angelou.
My Colombian writer friend however, assuaged my feelings of disappointments and sadness, of not being able to meet with Maya Angelou. He promised to give me a belated birthday gift on the July 23rd, by inviting me to the prestigious Wheatley Books Awards, at the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, an event co-sponsored to boost the brand architecture of the Harlem Book Fair, where our own Professor Chinua Achebe, Dr. Maya Angelou, Maryse Conde and Terry McMillan were honoured with various awards. The night’s event took on a long toga of tributes and ululations, it was an unforgettable event, Maya’s chaperon apologised to us that due to the exhausting activities of the previous events, she could not take long pictures or sign autographs with her fans. I heaved a sigh of discontent – another missed opportunity to tell this great Poet and Writer how much her works influenced me.
In October 2009, at the first journalism school in the United States – Missouri University School of Journalism. I missed yet another chance to discuss with this legendary Poet and Writer. She was amongst the invited guest speakers. She walked in with gait, panache and glamour that could only announce the presence of a queen. She took the stage with an alluring oratory that belied her age; her voice was rich, dominant and enchanting. She told her stories with unpretentious élan; she recalled how the vagaries of life finagled several huddles on her way to a successful writing career. She recapitulated life subversions that could have made every sane human being to buckle under pressures, but she kept her frustrations, disappointments, trepidations, anger and confusion with equanimity and later retold them in her 1969 book ‘I know Why Caged Bird Sings’. She quoted her popular truism: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story”. The hall was enveloped in the uncommon aura and elocution of this versatile writer. She performed her poem “Phenomenal Woman” with unconcealed lucidity and rhymes that evoked strong imageries, she gesticulated charmingly and moved around the hall like a gazelle in her gangling frame, to the applause and rheumy eyes of her enthralled audience.
She hugged life with an embrace that healed broken hearts. She was not arrogant but recounted her 30 honorary degrees from prominent institutions of learning, without going to a formal college. She described herself as the “most criticised and yet most honoured and loved”. She mentioned her three Grammy awards for spoken words. She said her nominations for Emmys and Tony were “humbling moments in my Arts”. Her passion and dedication to life resonated in her writings, her courage and compassion showed in her prosaic adroitness. Her words jumped off written pages to our minds like these imperishable quotations “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”; “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain”; “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty”; “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, ‘I love you’; “There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt”; “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.