Poetry puts starch in your backbone so you can stand, so you can compose your life.
It’s been too long since I’ve read anything but snippets or quotes — like the above — by Maya Angelou, and this memoir by Tavis Smiley (with David Ritz) reinforced that lack on my part.
Even though the book is about Dr. Angelou, not by her, I could hear her voice throughout.
As the title suggests, Smiley writes of the decades-long journey he shared with Angelou as his mentor and friend. In addition to specific times that they met, visited and spoke with each other, he highlights some of her poems along with her humor, wisdom, and insight. The quote above is not in the book, but it could have been, for that observation seems to be much of what drove the deep relationship between the two, even if it’s only implicit.
One of the things I most enjoyed were the accounts of when Maya Angelou and Smiley together broke into the gospel hymnody in which they’d both been raised. I loved, too, the descriptions of her appearances before crowds and audiences and her more intimate times with friends.
According to Smiley, she was always comfortable, poised, and gracious, even as her health deteriorated, but he made it clear that her first priority was hospitality for others and to put them at ease. It’s easy to see why when one reads the heartbreaking story of her rape as a child and the subsequent five or so years when she was rendered mute as a result. While her famous poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and her first memoir are based on the trauma, and while both she and Smiley acknowledged what happened, the courage of Angelou’s life and works more than transform that horrific time. And she has transformed the world, one person at a time, one poem, one book, one class, one friend at a time.
My Journey with Maya by Tavis Smiley, with David Ritz. 2015: Little, Brown and Co., NY.