My Journey with Maya
Few right-thinking people would question Maya Angelou’s status as an author, historian, intellectual, poet, social commentator, activist, and genuine Renaissance person.
Some may learn for the first time here about her early career as a dancer, actress, and singer.
The journey of the title is both literal and metaphorical. Both journeys began when Tavis Smiley, then a young black activist from Los Angeles with ambitions for public service, accompanied Maya Angelou on a visit to Ghana. This was his first visit to Africa and the beginning of her loving mentorship of him for the rest of her life.
In addition to vivid depictions of many of Maya’s triumphs on the public stage, we are allowed to see the domestic and personal side of this monumental figure. One particular vignette to be relished concerns her view of the miserable appearance of regular clients at a vegan restaurant where she had gone in a half-hearted attempt to improve her diet. The waitress did not appreciate her observation.
The best parts of the book are of course Angelou’s quoting her own poetry and other songs, hymns, and poems she loves, as well as speeches of other black leaders she admires, such as Malcolm X, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
Large parts of the book are written as reported speech. Thus after a very successful public lecture in Ghana, attended by the President of Ghana, and Stokely Carmichael among others, the following exchange took place:
“Let’s sit together for a few seconds,” she said, “We have an arduous trip ahead of us tomorrow. A few seconds of reflection would do us both good.”
“It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” I was quick to say.
“I’m glad to hear that, young Tavis Smiley. Your enthusiasm has been an unexpected blessing. Now however we face the time-old challenge that comes from extensive travelling. You’ve probably faced this challenge before.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.” I haven’t done much travelling.”
“The challenge centers on re-entry. After an exhilarating trip like this to a foreign and exotic land, how do we reenter the life we left behind?”
After she has sensitively probed his feelings of rejection at failing to win a seat on the city council just prior to their Ghana trip, this conversation leads inevitably to a life lesson, namely: “Rejection can simply mean re-direction.”
A little of this goes a long way—though in fact this “fine writing” is the dominant narrative style for 214 pages. It often seems a poor vehicle to convey the thoughts and sentiments expressed.
It is a great tribute to both Angelou and Smiley that despite these stylistic hitches their relationship shines through as completely believable and immensely touching.