Some people live their lives by goal-setting, some by accidental happenings, and some through a woven dance of many experiences. Throughout my life, thanks to guidance from my ancestors, I’ve been blessed with the gift of being in the right place at the right time, no matter how painful or joyous that might be. It is with humbled joy to know that in some small yet mighty way that I was influenced, inspired by, and may have been a source of inspiration to one person I encountered in such a way: Dr. Maya Angelou.
In 1975, our paths first crossed—although we didn’t meet at that time. I was at the Kuumba Workshop Theater in Chicago, hanging an exhibit for its tenth anniversary. As I arranged my art on the walls, a small, beautiful, frail, and funny man watched closely. He said, “Oh, my Maya must see this!” I thanked him and introduced myself. “Just call me Jimmy,” he responded. Only later did I realize it was James Baldwin speaking about Maya Angelou. I didn’t attend the anniversary celebration, but I kept that memory like an uncut diamond. Little did I know there would be more.
In the late 1980s I was working as an artist in Minneapolis, and I was the curator at the African American Cultural Center at Augsburg College. My good friend and the center’s executive director, Leclaire Lambert, called me into his office. I needed to hang an exhibition immediately, he said: Maya Angelou was coming to visit. I was stunned and delighted, having been taught that nothing was impossible. She was to arrive in a couple of hours. I was in shock but took action. The Queen was coming! All I had at the time was my paintings and a small collection of African artifacts. We contacted Bruce Henry to put together the music. As I hung the last piece, the double doors squeaked open and an entourage of people came scrambling in, all official-like.
As Ms. Angelou stepped in, she brought with her a sense of calm and grace. It was as if she inhaled the essence of the center and smiled. She looked relieved and happy to share a moment with us. Music began to play, and she took a seat as if in someone’s living room and began to tell a story. I was amazed as people came up to her telling her this or that as she graciously gave them a crooked, pearl-like smile and listened. We ate and we drank, and then she asked if I danced. We danced for a short moment and then it was time for her to move on to her next engagement. She was given a small package, which I realized I had quickly wrapped earlier in a brown shopping bag at my director’s request. It was a painting he had bought from me and decided to give to Ms. Angelou. She opened it, smiled, and was out the door. It was awe-inspiring not because of just who she was but more how she was, so gracious and giving. Her physical presence had left but her essence lingered for months and, with some, forever.
Fast forward to March 1988. I received an urgent call from an African American woman, a senior officer at Honeywell who said she wanted to purchase a painting and needed to have it soon as she going out of town. I was delighted, but was busy teaching and wasn’t sure if I could accommodate her. Please try, she said, adding that she was buying it for a great friend. She wouldn’t say who. I was hesitant, but I needed the money and, frankly, was intrigued. I agreed to meet with her at Honeywell’s headquarters. It was a cool, windy day, but the sky was beautiful with billowing white clouds. I felt I would make a good sale.
As she looked at the paintings spread out in the waiting area, I was surprised to hear, “These won’t do, not for her.” Again I asked, “Who?” She still wouldn’t say. Just then I remembered that as I left my house I’d grabbed a painting I’d just finished. It was going in a new direction. She had specified work on canvas and this was acrylic on watercolor paper. I pulled it out of the portfolio and she became silent. Then: “This is it.” She asked the piece’s title, and I turned it over to reveal the name I’d written on the back: Sister Friend. She said it was perfect, and we rushed to get it framed.
Weeks later she contacted me and explain that the painting was a gift to her mentor, Dr. Maya Angelou, and that she was invited to a secret 60th birthday party and was told to be prepared to leave for a four-day period. I was amazed, having just heard on the news that Oprah Winfrey had thrown a real secretive party for Dr. Maya Angelou. I was so honored to have played a small part in its execution.
Lastly, I was blessed in 1996 with Dr. Angelou’s presence at a book-signing at The Black Arts Renaissance Gallery in Minneapolis. She had agreed to do the event as a fund-raiser for her good friend, Dr. John Biggers, who’d illustrated her book. People were lined up outside and down the street, and I was excited the dedication for Dr. Biggers’ Celebration of Life mural, a project Seitu Jones and I had collaborated with him on, was coming soon. I thought I was a “big-time artist,” and I waited in line to say hi to my good friend Maya! When my turn came to speak with her I said, “Maya, how have you—” She stopped me in mid-sentence and said in a commanding voice: “Doctor Angelou!”
I was stunned and confused. All these people, and my son and my daughter, all frozen in time as she looked straight into my eyes with a reassuring look. I bowed slightly and said, “Of course, Dr. Angelou. It is so good to see you again.” She smiled and said, “So good to see you, too. We must teach our children well.” I gestured to my two children, Tionenji, then thirteen, and Jamal, who was eight years old. From that moment on, I referred to her as Dr. Maya Angelou, except when referencing the period before this humbling encounter.
Dr. Angelou’s passing late last month is a joyous thing and a sad thing. The joy is that the memories will never disappear, her work will never go away, and—perhaps most importantly—her example will live on. Her philosophy was the same philosophy of my family and my ancestors: nothing beats a failure but a try. (My father always added at the end “if it doesn’t hurt any body and doesn’t hurt yourself.” My grandmother never agreed with that; she’d say, “No, give it a try anyway.”) You can’t make a pearl with agitation, and you cannot make a diamond without pressure. Dr. Angelou was blessed with a treasure trove of diamonds and pearls that she made into beautiful experiences and words.
Ta-coumba T. Aiken is a Minneapolis-based artist. Included in the Walker’s collection, his current projects include the John Biggers’ Seed Project, a public art initiative that “engages renowned African American artists in mentoring young emerging artists in placemaking.”