'If I had been standing, I would have fallen': Metro-east mourns death of Maya Angelou

News-DemocratMay 28, 2014 

Maya Angelou at McKendree in 2003.

ZIA NIZAMI/BND Buy Photo

The community, especially those connected to the literary arts, reacted with sadness Wednesday to the passing of Maya Angelou, a renowned author, poet and civil rights leader.

Angelou, 86, was found dead in her Winston-Salem, N.C., home, according to her publicist, Helen Brann, and her only child, Guy B. Johnson.

On her Facebook page, Johnson wrote that his mother lived her life "as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace."

Locally, there was much love and admiration for the person many describe as "A Phenomenal Woman,' which was the title of one of her poems.

Poet Laureate Eugene B. Redmond described his relationship with Angelou as that of a brother and sister.

He said he met her in passing in the '60s. But in 1970 in Sacramento, Calif., she said, "Eugene, be my brother forever. Can you imagine that? That's deep. It meant I got your back. You got my back. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you and nothing that you wouldn't do for me. Anytime I am in need, you will be there and vice versa," Redmond said Wednesday in an interview.

For the last 13 years, Redmond said he went to North Carolina to write, and just a few days ago he chatted with Angelou about his plans to come to North Carolina this summer, he said.

Redmond, though he knew Angelou had a number of illnesses, was shocked to learn she of her death.

"I was driving my daughter to the airport when I got phone calls from North Carolina telling me she had died. If I had been standing, I would have fallen. I am glad I was sitting," Redmond said.

Angelou's "intellect, the brightness of her spirit and her cooking" are all things that Redmond says he will miss.

"There were three things that you had to do when you were with Maya Angelou -- you had to be a skilled raconteur -- someone who tells fairy tales. You had to weave tales and lies, you had to have a drink and a bite to eat. She was a master storyteller, a master sipper and a master cook," Redmond said.

Redmond said Angelou taught him to "relax your guard and love. She taught me deep unyielding love. She taught me not to withhold love from family, friends and parents."

Angelou was born Marguerite Anne Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. She got her name "Maya" from her brother, Bailey, who had a speech impediment. He called her "My" for my sister. Then, a few years after that, he read a book about the Mayan Indians and started calling her Maya. Her last name came from her marriage to a Greek sailor named Anastasios Angelopulos. She used the name Maya Angelou when she started her career as a nightclub singer.

Angelou had a powerful voice and she used it to speak out against racism in America.

One of her most powerful literary works was her first autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." In it she describes racism, sexism, racial identity and the Jim Crow South, which is synonymous with racial segregation laws.

In her writings, Angelou talked about how she was abandoned by her parents and of how her mother's boyfriend raped her when she was 8 years old. She told some family members about the rape and they killed the man who was responsible. Angelou thought it was her fault that he was killed and she stopped talking about it for seven years.

She also described how she was once homeless, and of becoming a teenage mother. The book was published in 1969 -- during the height of the civil rights movement in this country.

Angelou hosted the first fundraiser for the Eugene B. Redmond Collection at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Fondly recalling that event, Redmond said, "It went very well."

She was a trustee of the Eugene B. Redmond Writer's Club. She was also a senior editor of Drum Voices, the journal Redmond edits.

Darlene Roy, president of the Eugene B. Redmond Writer's Club, also knew Maya Angelou personally. She described her as a mentor and a champion of women and people in general.

"She was able to document her own life and her own experiences in a literary way so others could read it, and it gave them a way to release, a way to open up and share with others their experiences," Roy said.

Sylvester "Sunshine" Lee, founder and CEO of the Sunshine Cultural Arts Center in East St. Louis, described Angelou as a hero to those in the arts and humanities.

"Maya Angelou paved the way for a lot of us. She was a pioneer out there with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many of our great leaders. She was that voice -- when she talked we knew we should stop and pay attention. ... Maya Angelou stood up for any laws that would make life better for black people. As Malcolm X would say, she advocated for civil rights, human rights and any other rights that we should have had," Lee said.

Makat Moore, owner of Napps, a natural hair salon, said, "There's not been any other person who has promoted the phenomenal essence of and self-esteem of the black woman more than Maya Angelou."

Belleville Alderwoman Janet Schmidt said she first read "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" when she was 12. "For everything that has changed, so much still hasn't changed. Everyone should read it and try to do something to better the community whether it's an hour a day or an hour a week," she said.

Jerril Jones, president of The Center For Racial Harmony, said when he read the news of Angelou's death, he was saddened because "I feel she's not just an American but an international cultural icon. She had a wide range of influence in our society."

Edna Petty, a renowned artist and East St. Louis native, said Angelou's death is "a great loss to the country."

"She touched so many women, especially black women like me who grew up in East St. Louis and didn't have a lot of support from people saying to me you can do it or go for it," she said.

On being black in America, Angelou once wrote: "The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the black American ghettos the hero is that man who is only offered the crumbs from his country's table, but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast.

"Hence, the janitor who lives in one room but sports a robin's-egg-blue Cadillac is not laughed at, and the domestic who buys $40 shoes is not criticized, but is appreciated. We know they have put to use their full physical and mental power. Each single gain feeds into the body collectively."

Lee said America will never be the same because of Maya's voice.

"She was a phenomenal woman for blacks and whites. Everyone quotes her works. She brought the races together," he said.

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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