Still Rising: What I Learned on My Life Changing Visit to Maya Angelou’s Estate

by Glenis Redmond

I woke one Friday Morning with no idea that a path would lead me to Winston Salem, North Carolina. Even though at the beginning of the week, I had read the announcement about Maya Angelou’s Estate Sale, my first thought was not to attend. Even when the night before I offhandedly asked my twin daughters, Amber and Celeste, if I should go they both shouted in unison a resounding, yes.

Still, I thought of all the ways to keep me from going. I thought that I needed to conserve my funds, because as a teaching artist and a poet, I work along with the school year, so I needed to make my dollars stretch in the summer. I also thought about all of the responsibilities that I had at home – the endless items on my to do list.

May 28, 2014 hit like a bolt of lightning. During Diversity Leadership Initiative meeting at Furman University, a cohort and friend came up and whispered in my ear, Maya Angelou died. I let loose with an involuntary public cry and had to leave the session and go sit alone for a long time. How could I explain to people though I had only met Maya Angelou two times that she was my poetry-spiritual mother? How could I tell them that before I even met her that her autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” saved me?

The poem below begins to tell how her words gave me sustenance. The poem is a Kwansaba, a poem form invented by Maya Angelou’s longtime friend, Eugene Redmond. “A Kwansaba is an African American verse form of praise. The Kwansaba, (swahili kwan - first fruit / saba -principle). The form was developed in honor of the celebration of Kwanzaa. The poetic form adopts the number 7 from Kwanzaa's Nguzo Saba (7 principles) as well as embraces its roots in the South African tradition of the Praise Poem.”

The Cure
Kwansaba for Maya Angelou

Hungry little ebony girls across the world
starve on the crumbs of white words.
Caged Bird: a plate of soul food,
a globe turns of a small girl’s
muted misery, by shadow shame, she rose.
One book: a fish and fishing pole
giving a village of girls reeling hands.

Reading Maya Angelou’s memoir, I became part of her village. The book gave me both my voice and my wings. In her story, I found my own story: confronting racism and surviving sexual abuse. Her book was a source for me. As I read her words, I became empowered and emboldened with possibility.

Who knew twenty years later that she would visit Greenville, South Carolina, my hometown? I knew that I had to attend her reading/performance, so I bought my $15.00 ticket to hear her speak in 1995 at Furman University. I had just left my job as a Clinical Counselor II with the State of South Carolina to become a Poet and a Teaching artist.

Dr. Angelou entered the stage singing in French. I could not speak a lick of French. Yet, I felt the impact of her performance that resonated beyond language. Her surprise entrance taught me how to begin a poetry reading. She had us all in the palm of her well-cupped poetry hand. I learned from her how to engage an audience. She taught me never to explain by the way of linear introduction to the audience before a poetry reading – just do it and let audience come along on the poetic journey. I remember meeting Maya Angelou after that Furman University reading. I was speechless, a rare condition for this poet. I called out, “Dr. Maya Angelou.” She said yes. I stuttered and said, “I named my daughter after you.” She replied, “Bless you, child.” I felt that I had indeed been blessed.

In 2009, I had the opportunity via the classical pianist William Chapman Nyaho to attend her Thanksgiving Bash in Winston Salem. I went, but I did not get to meet her and she did not get to see me perform, because she had to leave because of her health. She had told the audience that she was really struggling health-wise. She asked for us to pray for her and we did.

How could I not go to her estate sale? Why was I holding back with excuse after excuse? When her memorial was held, I was touring and I was not able to attend. I finally swept all my excuses aside and decided to go to her estate sale. It would be my way to pay my respects to Dr. Maya Angelou. I put on a dress that my sister, Velinda had bought me for my birthday last year, a beautiful African print of birds flying out of their cages designed by Suakoko Betty. This was my first time wearing the dress. I drove from Charlotte, NC to Winston-Salem to her home on Bartram Road. When I arrived to her upscale neighborhood it was teeming with cars. Everyone was in a festive mood. They were there because they wanted to honor Maya Angelou. I had to park three blocks away, but there amongst her expansive library and works of arts that she cherished, I felt at home. I felt the poet’s presence on the grounds.

I knew I had done the right thing and I did not belong anywhere else, but where I was. I knew also that I wanted to purchase an item or items that would remind me of how Maya Angelou empowered me. I bought a few books. I bought three hand carved African wooden sculptures. Small items that I thought I could afford without breaking my summer budget. I also took pictures around her home. While I wandered around the house and grounds, many admired my dress and got relationship of the dress to Maya’s memoir - birds flying from their cages.

I drove away happy that I made space to honor the woman that did so much for me by helping me gain courage. I immediately called my mom while on my way back home to Charlotte. I told her that I had done it. I had made the journey. While talking to her I also realized what I really wanted at the estate sale was a painting, but I did not even think about purchasing it, because it was out of my price range. My mom said, “It is once in a lifetime, Glenis.” My mama’s words like Maya Angelou’s words hold much sway with me. She, like Maya, was asking me to think bigger and to throw away my self-limiting beliefs. So, I turned my car around and went back to Maya’s home. This time there was a line and I had to wait, but I did not mind, because we were all strangers with a common interest: Maya Angelou. We talked of all things Maya.

I had made a pact with myself that if the painting that I had spied was still there, I would purchase it. If it wasn’t, that too was a sign from God. When I got in the house the painting was still there. Immediately I got one of the Laster’s (estate sellers and art experts) to take it down from the wall. As soon as I did, a sistah walked up and asked “Are you buying that?” I said, yes. I did not hesitate or flinch. She really wanted the painting, but I was on a Jeanette Vivian Redmond mission. My mama’s “once in a lifetime, Glenis” rang in my mind. This woman could not coerce me to give this piece of art up.

The estate sellers had the security guard walk me to the car with my purchase. When we got to the line of people outside of the house, a few people yelled: turn it around. They all gasped at the Bria Brand painting of a regal Masai woman. I told the crowd, “I came back to get this painting because my mom told me to and I always listen to my mama.” They laughed and few took pictures of the painting.

After placing the painting in my car, Ike the security guy said, “Your mom was right. This is an investment. You did a good thing today.” He added, “You can flip this painting right now and double your money.” I did not tell the security guard that my mom also told me to think of my grandson, Julian. “This painting can be passed down to him.”

With the painting in my car driving home, I was thinking of Maya Angelou and how she had freed me from my own psychic cage. I was thinking of how she had put me on my path. I was thinking of how I had first seen her at Furman University and that she seemed to be singing and speaking solely to me. I laughed and cried in the darkness of the McAlister Auditorium at Furman University. I was thinking that I was sitting there with my twin 5 year-old daughters one named Vivian Celeste after my mother and one named after Maya Angelou: Maya Amber. I was thinking of this legacy. I was thinking of my grandson, Julian, son of my daughter Maya. I was thinking on my drive home about full circles. How I was linked to Maya Angelou and how I had learned about her death at Furman University, where I had first heard her read. I was thinking about the mysteries of beginnings and endings.

I was also thinking about how she gave life to a teenage girl living in Piedmont, South Carolina. I was thinking about how Maya pointed me toward legacy, healing, arts and overcoming. I was thinking of her poem “Still I Rise. ”

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

I was thinking about how she had helped me to rise and how I am still rising, because of her watering of words in my world. This is my 21st year as a teaching artist and a poet and I know that I would not have been able to do what I have done, if Maya Angelou had not come before me trailing wisps of glory for me to follow.

Photo: Bob Richman / Harpo, Inc.

Glenis Redmond lives in Charlotte, NC.  She has traveled to all over the state and the country as a Road Poet with two posts as the Poet-in-Residence at The Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, SC and at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. This year she served as the Mentor Poet for the National Student Poets Program.  She prepared student poets to read at the Library of Congress, the Department of Education and for the First Lady, Michelle Obama at The White House.

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