By Stacy M. Brown and Barrington Salmon
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer
"You may shoot me with your words,
you may cut me with your eyes,
you may kill me with your hatefulness,
but still, like air, I’ll rise." — Maya Angelou, "Still I Rise," 1978
On the day Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Dr. Eleanor W. Traylor remembered the joyous, caring, ebullient woman she’d known since the mid-1960s.
Traylor, a Northwest resident and retired English professor and former chairman of Howard University’s English Department, tried to compose herself as she reminisced about their friendship and the considerable legacy crafted by Angelou over the course of 86 years.
"Oh, I will remember her as the finest representation of a marvelous generation," said Traylor, 79, who fought tears all day and repeatedly paused to sob as she spoke about her dear friend.
"Her life spanned the civil rights movement and the Black Arts movement to the present. What she left to us in the way of contributions and language, as well as in community building is inestimable," Traylor said. "She blotted out the language of diminishment and influenced the public discourse. Her grace, her elegance, her at-home-ness, gave us the image of her we hold. That’s my most powerful memory."
Angelou, born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, immersed herself in the arts.
She danced, acted, belted out songs, penned soaring poetry and captivating novels that chronicled some of the horrors of her young life and her ability to rise above circumstances that might have crippled others.
Traylor recalled meeting Angelou for the first time when she appeared in a two-woman Broadway play with Geraldine Page.
"I met her ages ago at that time when she was with Geraldine Page in a production about Mary Todd Lincoln," said Traylor, who served as chairman of Howard’s English Department from 1993-2009.
"I met her at a party right after her production. I remember her entrance in a full-length sable coat. We became friends. It was a kind of literary generation with people like Rosa Gee, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Larry Neal and Imira Baraka."
Traylor, a noted scholar and critic in African-American literature and criticism, said the friendship grew and blossomed over time and she said she enjoyed the texture and vibrancy of their association.
Angelou’s 1970 memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," describing her childhood in the Jim Crow South and the racism and abuse she suffered, cemented her literary reputation.
In an artistic career arc of more than 60 years, Angelou penned over 30 books of poems, essays and autobiographies, danced with Alvin Ailey’s dance company, sang Calypso, regaled audiences with cabaret songs and served as a director for both television and film.
A winner of three Grammy Awards for spoken-word recordings of her poetry and prose, Angelou read an original poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration and delivered a poem written to mark the Million Man March in October 1995.
Traylor said Angelou had the uncanny ability to find joy and to project goodness despite having endured a blistering childhood.