Atlanta remembers Maya Angelou

As she often did, Maya Angelou arrived in Atlanta one evening long ago with no fanfare, this time for a friend’s 40th birthday party at a downtown bar near Luckie Street.

Music was pumping and Angelou wanted to move. As a woman who studied dance under Martha Graham, she couldn’t help herself. Angelou spotted her friend Ambassador Andrew Young, grabbed his hand and pulled him onto the dance floor. Young was proficient at doing the jitterbug, but he thought his vintage steps were best performed in the privacy of his home. But there Angelou was, all 6 feet of her, swaying and telling him to go ahead and cut loose.

“You gotta remember, Maya had danced with Alvin Ailey,” Young said. “She started swinging me around. And after I overcame my shame, I enjoyed it. It wasn’t about keeping time or having rhythm, it was about the music.”

In the wake of Angelou’s death at 86 last week in North Carolina, it was the memory of her ability to find joy even in imperfection that helped her extended Atlanta “family” cope with her passing.

San Francisco, Cairo, Accra, New York. Angelou, the iconic poet, author and actress, called all of those places home at some point in her life. Yet for nearly 45 years, Atlanta was often her hideaway. It’s true, she was a sought-after speaker at civic and arts events in town, as well as at college campuses such as Spelman or Morehouse. But long before she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she’d come here to write. She’d come here to rest. She’d come here to take care of family.

And sometimes, she just came here to shake off her blues.

Like a royal summons

In his lifetime, if there was one man who could bring together the leading lights of African-American literary, visual and dance scenes, it was professor Richard A. Long of Atlanta University and, later, Emory. Just 1 year older than Angelou, Long was a respected scholar of the black American experience. The only thing he might have been known better for were his legendary parties.

At Long’s house on Edgewood Avenue, you might meet painter Romare Bearden at a brunch, choreographer Ailey at a dinner or author James Baldwin at a cocktail party. Or Angelou at a get-together, as Atlanta author and playwright Pearl Cleage did. Angelou was cooking in Long’s Inman Park kitchen, the two of them having been friends for years.

At the time, Cleage was already making a name for herself as a writer. Yet she was afraid to approach Angelou, the poet’s robust laughter filling the room.

“I took a seat on the couch and after a while Richard came over and said, ‘Maya would like to see you in the kitchen,’” Cleage said. “It was like a royal summons, so I obeyed. And when I got in there she was warm and full of absolute encouragement for what I was doing. She would let you walk into her life and just sit down.”

It was through Long that photographer Susan Ross met Angelou when Ross was a teenager. Over the next four decades, a friendship grew between Ross’s family and the poet, Ross said. But though Angelou accommodated Ross’s picture taking, Ross said she learned not to be offended when the author slipped into town and just as quietly slipped out.

“She would come to Atlanta sometimes just to write,” Ross said. “She’d get a hotel room for a few days and just stay there and work during the day. At night she’d meet Dr. Long and my parents for dinner, or some of her other friends here. Sometimes we didn’t even know she was here.”

Angelou’s ties to Atlanta had been established in the early 1960s when she met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a coordinator in the civil rights organization’s New York office. Always involved in the civil rights struggle, she worked with both King and Malcolm X. King’s assassination, on the same day as her birthday, April 4, troubled her for years. So in 1970, when Young made his first run for Congress, he was thrilled when Angelou offered to come down for a fundraiser. Her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was a best-seller and had been nominated for a National Book Award.

At the fundraiser, Young said, Angelou stood on the lawn of then-Atlanta Alderman Marvin Arrington’s house, reading poems and mingling with guests. But she also gave a speech connecting Young’s election to the continuation of the civil rights struggle. Young lost the election. But his friendship with Angelou endured. Decades later, Angelou would speak at her friend Coretta Scott King’s funeral, opening her remarks with a spiritual sung in the rich contralto that earned Angelou three Grammys. And on Wednesday, Young was among the first people Angelou’s son, Guy, called to tell of her passing, he said.

When Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson, attended Morehouse College in the 1990s, Angelou bought a home here so he could spend weekends there with her and his friends. That home near Ashford Dunwoody Road, just inside the Perimeter, became a hub. And while many read her work, lucky were the few who got to eat her cooking: Carmel cake, beef and lamb, but not seafood because she was allergic to it.

“Oh, could she cook,” Ross said. “She would have these wonderful dinner parties and invite whoever was in town.”

Those dishes, which sprang from her rural Arkansas upbringing, served as a foundation for her 2004 cookbook, “Hallelujah: The Welcome Table.”

Diva in the best sense

Yet, as welcoming as she was, she was also a woman fully aware of her talent and clear about what she would and would not tolerate.

University of Georgia professor and author Valerie Boyd remembers an incident during the 1998 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, where Boyd was co-sponsor of literary events. Audience members were still streaming in just moments before Angelou was to take the stage. A stage manager suggested starting the show 10 minutes after the scheduled 8 p.m. opening curtain, to let people settle in.

“She looked at him and said, ‘No, we will not. We will begin at 8 p.m.,’” said Boyd, a former editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So that’s what we did. She was a diva but in the best sense. She had absolutely earned that right because she demanded a lot of herself and she demanded it of others.”

Even as her health began to deteriorate and she used an oxygen tank to help her breathe, Angelou continued to visit Georgia. Her 80th birthday party at Atlanta Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center was a star-studded benefit for the YMCA teen center named for her on Campbellton Road. When she spoke at UGA last year, lines for the sold-out event stretched around the block. In March, she was the keynote speaker for “Women 2 Women: Intergenerational Life Lessons & Legacies,” an empowerment conference in Atlanta for young black women organized by her friend, Sonjia Young.

Originally, Young wanted Angelou to speak at the 2015 conference. Kelley Jackson, who helped coordinate the event, said Angelou was excited to speak to a young audience, but insisted she speak this year.

“She told Sonjia, ‘No, no. Get me now, because I might not be here next year.’”

Her passing was not an occasion for sadness, Andrew Young said, calling her one of the most vivacious people he’d ever known. And then, as if remembering her long-ago encouragement to be free, Young burst into song.

“I’ll fly away, Oh glory, I’ll fly away,” he sang. “When I die, Hallelujah by and by. I’ll fly away.”

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