When Maya Angelou died Wednesday at age 86, luminaries from hip-hop moguls to literary greats like poet Nikki Giovanni began to recall just how much Angelou had inspired them to forge their own artistic paths.
Giovanni, a Virginia Tech poetry professor, penned an essay for CNN in memory of her late friend and mentor, Angelou (above, seated), who was a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, until her death. Many of the memories Giovanni (above, right) recounted were details of their warm friendship: traveling to Angelou’s home with a friend to show off their cooking skills; she and her mother making Angelou’s acquaintance at a Mount Holyoke College reading for which Angelou and several others in attendance wore fur coats.
“I looked at that group and made a silent vow to never allow my mother to be with this group again without a fur coat,” Giovanni wrote. “We purchased one soon after.”
When her mother died, Giovanni shared the story with Angelou, who friends called “Doc.” Angelou reportedly just laughed and said, “We had no idea.”
Spending evenings at Angelou’s home after she’d moved to Winston-Salem was always a tantalizing affair, wrote Giovanni: “Everyone came to Doc’s place, which was great fun. You’d wake up in the morning not knowing who would be down to breakfast. The superstars; the wonderfully funny; old friends from another country; a congressman. And Doc treated them all the same.”
Though she would rarely mince words with her friends, Giovanni said Angelou was greatly swayed by their friend, the late author Alex Haley, who liked to say, “Find the good and praise it.”
She added, “In all my years of knowing her, I only heard her once speak ill of someone and that was well deserved.”
As with her standout 1969 book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou always focused her work on issues of inner beauty and freedom. Friends like Giovanni say it was in her nature:
“We only have to look at her life to see that she took every ounce of joy life had to offer. I will remember her as a courageous woman who always wanted to love, and wish her a rightful place in literature.”
Giovanni told NPR that Angelou was especially suited to become what she’d become.
“I don’t know anybody, and I really don’t, who has gotten as much out of life as Maya Angelou,” Giovanni told NPR. “I think [Maya] had a difficult childhood at the beginning and I think that the silence allowed her to absorb good stories.”
Here’s Giovanni’s poem, “My Dream for Maya,” as recited by Giovanni:
It wasn’t just renowned contemporaries with heaps of praise for Angelou. Some of hip-hop’s biggest names have a whole lot of love for Angelou too, from Common and Jay-Z to Tupac Shakur and Q-Tip, who just tweeted:
I tried to copy Maya’s fluid voice early on but failed miserably. But because of her I found my own… RIP Maya Angelou and thank u
— QTip (@QtipTheAbstract) May 28, 2014
[Image courtesy of Virginia Tech]