I don't have $6 for event parking, so I loop around the block and pull into the first available space on Second Street. The fear I have of walking three blocks downtown after dark to reach the entrance of the Greater Richmond Convention Center to see a woman who has overcome so many horrors of the segregated South is, at the least, ironic. I concentrate on the young women holding babies and the hands of toddlers as I walk through the crowd of dark-skinned young men hanging around and waiting for the bus. I am ashamed of my fear and unable to deny it. I am on way to see a woman who was called a dog and refused treatment by a white dentist, who broke through thicker barriers of racism and hate than I can stand to imagine, who rose from poverty to stardom. Still, I am glad when I find the right door, and that the street is well lit.
I find my seat amongst the many others who have come out to see this famed actress, author, poet, dancer, teacher, etc. etc. Her list of accomplishments is longer than the novel I'm trying to write, and that's what she did before breakfast. My eyes wander over the 500-600 heads - ebony and silver, dirty blonde, charcoal and roan, high school students and college groups, children and the elderly, press people with cameras larger than my head. This is one of the most well integrated groups I've seen in Richmond and I feel a surge of hope that eluded me getting out of my car on Second Street.
The program begins with introductions and accolades by Family Lifeline's 130th Anniversary Committee Chair, Mary Catharine Ginn Kolbert, Ronald Long from Wachovia Securities, Reed Henderson, the President and CEO of Family Lifeline and then Anne Holton, the First Lady of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This is the third time I've seen a member of the gubernatorial family in two weeks. "Wow, they're hip," I think. "Or else I'm political. Which is it?" First I saw Tim Kaine at the Library of Virginia Literary Awards, then at the Style 25th Anniversary Party at Toad's Place and now here's his wife to introduce former Poet Laureate of the United States, Maya Angelou. These are politicians I can actually relate to.
Holton shows her passion for Family Lifeline, particularly the programs Healthy Families and Independence House. She refers to Angelou as a "shero" and advises the audience to "brag to famous people about your kids," as she had done backstage earlier that evening.
I see Angelou's entourage milling about behind the stage and am shocked to see the poet in a wheelchair. Maya Angelou fought her way to become the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco! She was nominated for her performance in "Roots"! She was the inspiration for Oprah! But when the 79-year-old rises from her wheelchair with a cane to ascend the steps, she is still a six-foot-tall African Queen in a shimmery floor length brown and gold dress that does more than just allude to her curves. The audience rises in a happy storm of applause.
Angelou begins with a song and her voice is deep and rich, like church. "When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds." I'm scribbling furiously and trying to find the flash on my camera. Soon Angelou is talking about laughter, poetry and rainbows in the clouds. These will be her themes of the evening.
"The Judeo-Christian bible encourages us to believe that a cheerful spirit is good medicine," she says. "We produce more endorphins in a cheerful climate. Not long ago, I had the chore and blessing of speaking to a group of cancer survivors. I prayed mightily and decided when I got there to tell jokes. At first they were thrown, they were like 'what on earth?' But after 15 minutes they relaxed and laughed. I think that what you need, because of your commitment, is a chance to laugh."
Then I remember that I actually am in the midst of a room of many people who dedicate their lives to bettering the lives of others.
"Since you are so busy being rainbows in somebody else's cloud, get encouragement from poetry. It will stand you in good stead. When I'm considering writing, I always go to poetry and I try to find encouragement to be more than I find myself to be right now."
Angelou says that she is going to use African American poetry exclusively, "but I don't have to, it's not in my contract," she laughs. "In the old poems and songs we talk about the love black people have for each other, like in this 1950's folk song:
"The woman I love is fat and chocolate to the bone.
And every time she shakes, some skinny woman loses her home."
After recounting how she has been called "big, black and ugly" she recites "Harlem Sweeties" by Langston Hughes:
"Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Sweet enough to eat.
Coffee and cream,
Out of a dream "
The poem in her mouth is like laughter, sensuous and full. I cringe to think of that face being called ugly. She apologizes for having to sit.
"I would encourage you to go to your librarian tomorrow morning, or tonight if you have a home number and using whatever appellation you've agreed upon - Mr., Dr., Yo! - ask for their expertise in 19th-century poetry. And after they get over the shock, follow them around. You need to know somebody was there before you. Somebody was lonely before you. Somebody called out in the night before you, and that somebody has survived before you. Somebody has survived with passion and with style."
Then she mentions Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem about courage, abandoning her promise to cite only African-American authors, betraying her love of poetry across all borders. "Courage is the most important of all the virtues because it is the one that allows you to practice all of the others consistently."
Several years ago, her only son was in a car accident that crushed the same three vertebrate in his spine as Christopher Reeves. "After the ninth operation on his spine, he called and asked me if I remembered 'Invictus,'" she says. "I had taught it to him when he was eight years old. I said 'yes,' and he asked if I'd recite it to him. I did and he said 'Great mom, but you left out a verse.' So then, we said it together. 'Invictus: I am the master of my fate: I am the victor of my soul.' He said, 'Thanks Mom, I just had 100 stitches taken out of my spine.' The white male poet who wrote that over 100 years ago had no idea it would be of such use to a young black man today."
Then she recites a poem of her own that she wrote after being told not to smoke at a vegetarian restaurant. It ends with the line "smoking carnivores at health food stores." Everyone is laughing at this regal woman's homage to pork chops and chicken thighs.
"My life may mean something to people I will never meet," she says, telling the trickle-down-effect story of meeting a man that her Uncle Willie had hired as a young, poor black boy to work at their family store in Stamps, Arkansas. This man ended up becoming the Mayor of Little Rock. He, in turn, hired a young, poor black boy who ended up in the Senate. "You never know whose life you can change, that you may never meet," she says.
She tell tales of a few more people she's met, whose lives she has transformed or somehow affected. "If I'm bragging," she says, "I'm bragging on the rainbows in my clouds. I don't trust people who say, 'I don't like myself, but I love you.' There's an old African saying: Be wary of the naked man who offers you a shirt!'"
Angelou ends with the story of being asked to write a poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, shortly after her address at Bill Clinton's inauguration. "When they asked, I said yes!" she says. "Just say yes and then start praying. I was flooded with tears of gratitude for the men and women who were kind to me -- black and white, gay and straight. When the UN formed in San Francisco, I was 16, about to finish high school, black -- even then -- unmarried and pregnant. I knew that if I wasn't six feet tall, uneducated, black, pregnant and unmarried I could have gone into those buildings." Years later, she would be asked to bless one of the very institutions that had once shunned her.
To close, Angelou recites the poem she wrote for the UN, "A Brave and Startling Truth."
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth .
I leave after Angelou takes a deep bow and the audience gives her a long standing ovation. My walk back to the car alone and in the dark doesn't feel quite as long.