Maya Angelou: Artist, 'warrior' and beacon to many


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Maya Angelou lived many lives in a long, illustrious life. Consider this list: poet, memoirist, playwright, musician, actor, producer, cable car conductor, waitress, cook, editor of an English language paper in Egypt, cast member of the opera "Porgy and Bess," three-time Grammy winner, Pulitzer Prize nominee, calypso dancer, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, mentor to a young Oprah Winfrey and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor.

But to two Pittsburgh women of color -- one a poet, the other a corporate executive -- Ms. Angelou was a personal beacon, someone who, during several fateful encounters, clarified and reaffirmed their choices in life.

Ms. Angelou died Wednesday at 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. The cause of death was not given.

People mourn, celebrate life of Maya Angelou

People mourn, celebrate life of Maya Angelou

For Toi Derricotte, the noted American poet, longtime teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, and founder of Cave Canem, a New York City-based foundation dedicated to nurturing young black poets, her big moment with Ms. Angelou came in the early 1970s.

That's when Ms. Derricotte -- now retired at 73 and living in Churchill -- met Ms. Angelou at a party in Harlem and received a warm welcome from her. And for the first time, Ms. Derricotte said, she felt validated for spending her own days in a small New York apartment laboring over poems while her husband was at work and her son was at school.

"It was the feeling, 'I belong. I'm in the circle.' It was a big moment for me," said Ms. Derricotte, who would achieve international acclaim for writing candid, difficult poems and autobiographical prose about abuse, family dysfunction and the reclaiming of self.

For Candi Castleberry-Singleton, chief inclusion and diversity officer at UPMC and founder of the Dignity and Respect Campaign -- which began as an internal effort at UPMC before becoming a national nonprofit that promotes inclusion -- her most memorable time with Ms. Angelou was in 2011 during a weekend spent at her North Carolina home.

She, along with a group of other members of the national campaign, including Charlie Batch, former backup quarterback for the Steelers, had traveled there to present Ms. Angelou with the campaign's inaugural Dignity and Respect Award, said Ms. Castleberry-Singleton.

That weekend "was like going home to your grandmother's," to a rambling, 18-room house, comfortable and unpretentious, she said, except the grandmother "had signed photos of amazing people all over the wall, framed songs of country music lyrics she wrote, books signed by every president in her lifetime, and the stories were about these 'famous' people, but her friends, Nelson, Bill and Barack."

"It felt like going home to visit a family member that you've known your whole life," she said, adding that "Ms. Angelou told me: 'I don't let negative energy into this house. It comes in and sits on my furniture, and gets on the carpet, into my clothes, into the air. I just don't let negative energy in here.' You knew you were in a place of peace."

Ms. Angelou had visited PIttsburgh numerous times, brought in by the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt Program Council in 1998 and 2005, and the Carnegie Library sponsored a lecture at the Carnegie Music Hall in 2002.

Wednesday, plaudits and accolades poured forth for Ms. Angelou, who first achieved widespread fame in 1969 with the first of seven autobiographies, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," about her life up to age 17, a harrowing childhood in the Jim Crow South.

Shockingly candid for its time, it's a story of parental abandonment, rape by her mother's boyfriend, homelessness and single teen motherhood. It became an international best-seller and today is a staple on most student reading lists, not to mention on the American Library Association's own list of works that earns the most complaints from parents and educators.

After the man who raped her was convicted, and later beaten to death -- it is believed, by Ms. Angelou's uncles -- Ms. Angelou didn't speak for many years, but then, at the urging of a teacher, she began to talk again.

"There was something extremely powerful about that," Ms. Derricotte said. "She represented this figure of self-love, of self-grandeur, who would not be silenced. And when I saw her, she seemed larger than life. She was a diva in the best sense of the word, like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich."

Ms. Derricotte, who grew up in Detroit, met Ms. Angelou at that party through her own mother, who had married a man whose sister, Mary Jane Hewitt, was one of Ms. Angelou's best friends. Ms. Derricotte, who had a degree in education, was taking her first poetry courses at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan and was traveling around New Jersey's public schools, teaching poetry to children.

"I'd been writing all my life, but certainly never publicly, and was beginning to see this was my life's work," she said. "I was kind of ashamed about it, because my husband was working at Chase Manhattan Bank and my son was in school six or seven hours a day, and my neighbor down the hall was saying, "Girl, you got to get a job."

"I don't think I really thought of myself as a poet, but at her apartment, for a party, with other famous writers and artists, she seemed so majestic, so self-assured. She had recently published 'Caged Bird,' taking all the abuse from her childhood and turning it into art."

That book was just one in a prolific writer and artist's career spanning half a century: she would publish numerous volumes of poetry, essays, and her credits would include plays, movies, television shows and music albums.

Indeed, the "Caged Bird" title, from the last line of a poem by Paul Lewis Dunbar, a black poet of the late 19th and early 20th century, "really relates to slavery and how slavery silenced us," said Ms. Derricotte.

Ten years ago, at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Fla., Ms. Derricotte sat next to her at dinner and Ms. Angelou "told me how much she admired our work at Cave Canem and how important it was for young African-American poets. I felt this historic connection to what we wanted and the strength of our work, to hear that from her."

Ms. Angelou was an elegant, formal person, which Ms. Castleberry-Singleton attributes to the Southern culture she lived in.

"There were no first names in that house, it was Mr. and Mrs. and Miss" -- although Ms. Angelou, recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees was widely known as Dr. Angelou. "She sat, for the most part, in a chair and told stories, sang, gave advice. I got the sense that there was order to things, and you had to be fully in the moment. It was something I will never forget in my life," said Ms. Castleberry-Singleton, who grew up in California and came to Pittsburgh from Detroit, where she was vice president of global inclusion and diversity at Motorola.

In her last days, Ms. Angelou was frail but lucid until the end.

"Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension," said her son Guy Johnson, in a statement. "She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love."

Officials at Wake Forest University, where she had taught American Studies since 1982, said a campus memorial service is being planned.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG.

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