“Here on the pulse of this new day.
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
And into your brother’s face,
And say simply
With hope –
– Maya Angelou, from “On the Pulse of Morning”
September 12th, 2014, The Riverside Church, New York
On a nearly perfect late summer day in Morningside Heights there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but there were plenty of rainbows beneath the domed ceiling of The Riverside Church to celebrate the life of Dr. Maya Angelou. This magnificent Church, with its rich history and commitment to justice, with its limestone pillars and Flemish stained glass, was filled with joy – and some great hats – as The Brown Sisters from Portland Oregon opened the program with an amazing “Amazing Grace.”
“Girls, you got voice!” One of the Sisters recalled Dr. Angelou saying after she had heard them sing for the first time. And the Sister said how encouraging it was for the group to hear that. Encouragement and support were common themes among the stellar line-up of speakers and performers that honored this phenomenal woman.
Toni Morrison shared that, outside of her immediate family, Maya Angelou was the first person she heard from after the death of Ms. Morrison’s son. Ms. Morrison added that it was easy to find encouraging security in Maya Angelou’s laugh and that her words, like her, were immortal. Nikki Giovanni commented that Dr. Angelou had told her, “You don’t wait for things to be perfect to sing your songs.”
Many remarked about Dr. Angelou’s quintessential uniqueness. The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke about how Dr. Angelou’s presence monopolized a room no matter what celebrities or politicians were present.
Ms. Alyson Williams sang “A Rainbow in the Clouds.” Mrs. Valerie Simpson performed “I’m Every Woman” with pre-recorded help from Dr. Angelou herself. Ms. Tsidii Le Loka and a group of singers from South Africa performed “The Bird Song.” And Az Yet closed the service with “Still I Rise.”
There were reflections from Mr. Howard Dodson Jr. (Director Emeritus of The Schomburg Center for Research in the Black Culture of New York City), and spiritual reflections from Dr. Forbes.
Perhaps the most poignant memories were from Dr. Angelou’s family and longtime editor. Dr. Angelou’s grandsons, Mr. Colin Ashanti Johnson and Mr. Elliot Matthew Jones, both spoke of their personal memories of their grandmother. Colin mentioned that in one of his last conversations with his grandmother, he asked what she thought about the people who had done her wrong in her life, to which Maya Angelou replied: “If those who had done me wrong, if they thought I’d stop on my path to heaven to turn back to look at them, well they had another thing coming.” Elliot took time to thank Random House for all they had done to make this event possible. And he recalled calling up his grandma to ask just what she meant after he’d been assigned to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in his California high school.
Then there were the breathtaking reflections offered by Dr. Maya Angelou’s son, Mr. Gus Johnson, who fought back emotion to tell some heroic and harrowing stories of growing up with his mother. Of coming home from school to find Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali sitting in the kitchen, or Dr. King on the phone. Of going to demonstrations and saying to his mother, “Mama, you’re going to get us killed!” And of his mother squaring off against mounted police with her majestic voice: “One person standing on the word of God is the majority.”
Earlier in the program, Mr. Robert Loomis, Executive Editor, Random House, and the only editor Maya Angelou ever had, spoke of what it was like to work with Maya Angelou for over 40 years, for 10 books of poetry, 7 volumes of autobiography, 12 Children’s Books, and 2 Cookbooks. Mr. Loomis said that her memories awakened into an intense experience of life and that her autobiographical series was unmatched in American Letters. Mr. Loomis closed by saying:
“The cage still exists, but the bird will always sing, her voice is with the angels.”
Tom Nevins 09/15/2014
Tom Nevins is a Senior National Accounts Manager at Penguin Random House and the author of THE AGE OF CONGLOMERATES: A NOVEL OF THE FUTURE. Click here to read his essay about how his dystopian novel may be read and taught during Banned Books Week.