There was a fore-warning that there would be no question and answer segment, but listening. Only listening and laughing, for the poet is one who commands her audience in charm, and holds them spellbound as soon as she steps onto the stage like an acrobatic masquerade. She was introduced by poet Eugene Redmond who calls her his sister, and the audience rose in applause. Maya had come.
She came in a coach, a large bus that also functions as a mobile house, with bathrooms and other conveniences. According to the poet, she stopped flying in planes about nine years ago when she found it impossible to go out in public without someone pulling her clothes, making an embarrassing scene that often bothers on the ludicrous. She gave an instance of someone screaming above her lungs as soon as she saw Maya get out of her car somewhere in Arkansas. “Maya Angelou is getting out of her car,” the stranger yelled. And the poet pulled her close and asked why she was screaming towards a set of (white) people a few feet away who didn’t ask for it. “Because they don’t know you,” the other replied, to the poet’s amazement and everyone’s rounds of laughter as she relayed it. But we knew she was serious, lending needed credibility to her preference for road trips within the United States rather than air plane flights. She had been on the road all the way from Carolina to Illinois, and she would be going straight to New York, also by road. She also joked, and took time to correct news stories that she was sick and dying. “Don’t believe them,” she said. “It’s not the truth.”
Then she read from her poem, “The Health Food Diner”, a poem she wrote in response to a diner in Mississippi where a staff had warned her not to smoke. And then she told stories from her past, in a husky voice that bellowed around the room. She told of discrimination, and hope, and joy, and rebellion, and progress, and love. “We are all rainbows,” the author said, “placed in the clouds to make some other person happy. And we’ve all been paid for,” she continued, “with either blood and human excrement from the slave ships from Africa, or the blood and brine of fleeing Jews from the camps of Eastern Europe, or the sweat from the brows of the Asians who came to this country in the 1800s to lay the railroad tracks, and buy properties so that their descendants can lay claim to the new nation.” Each one of us has an ancestry of brave people who have suffered so that we may enjoy. And so when we go out in the morning, just a little word of hope, of compliment, can always, always make a difference in some other person’s life. Speaking about the racist N-word, Maya made an allegory to poison pills in a labelled container. Putting the pills into a nice plate of gold would never make them less poisonous, or less potent, she said, in response to today’s youths (take that, Jay-Z!) who present new filmsy reasons in the entertainment circuit as justification for the continued use of these words. Poison is still poison, Maya said, no matter how it is wrapped, and I agree. And then she sang, beautifully. Pleasantly. At her age, one would expect brokenness. But no, she definitely didn’t sound coarse or broken, but rather mellifluous. She let it be known that she had written a couple of songs for some of Roberta Flack’s albums, and she sang one of them today as well, to rounds of laughter and applause. She is also a script writer, having written Down in the Delta, and acted in a few other films about African-America life. Then there was Roots, a tv series made from Alex Haley’s 1977 best-selling and Pulitzer-winning book.
The Traveller did get the photos he had hoped to get, but could not get the desired autograph from the visiting writer, at least not immediately. Like he had dreaded, the 81 year old woman had sneaked out of the hall before anyone else could, immediately after her completing her reading, and got onto her big dark coach before any member of the audience got there. That was such a lesson in humility, nil-expectation and obedience to the inner voice. (For on approaching the venue of the programme one hour earlier on a bike before the event began, I had noticed a big black coach bus in front of the library. But being quite a strange vehicle never before seen on campus, I’d wanted to check it out. After all, it was in that library where the photo exhibition took place on Friday. I didn’t. I had a seat to reserve. And this turned out to be a wise decision as well, in retrospect, because one hour before the start of the programme, half of the auditorium was already filled completely. However I was still able to get a seat in the front – which is usually not my style. It was then such a sigh to find out later that she it was indeed who was in the Library, inspecting some of her photos on display. Well, shtuff happens! A bigger conceit for me however is in another kind of pleasant waiting. Poet Eugene B. Redmond has taken away with him my new copy of Maya’s last autobiography, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, to be duly autographed by the author, and returned to me. Within its pages is something that I had slipped in, with his collusion, brought all the way from home: a compact disc of songs and poems from Yorubaland, signed in my trembling student ink: “To Maya, With Love.”