Remembering Maya Angelou

This week in North Philly Notes, Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director at Temple University Press, remembers her experience working with the late, great poet Maya Angelou, who wrote the preface for Hope and Dignity, by Emily Herring Wilson and Susan Mullally Clark.

When I first arrived in Philadelphia, and was discovering the city culturally, I attended an event on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus featuring poet, teacher, author, and activist Maya Angelou. There, I heard for the first time her read her unforgettable poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise”—“I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”

Well, I was mesmerized by her words and voice. A picture of her I got from somewhere that I no longer recall and had with me at the event, was later signed by her “Joy! Maya Angelou 12/4/85.” It remains on my bulletin board today, as does her ’93 Clinton inauguration poem “On the Pulse of the Morning.” She was my hero.

So when a few years later, I had the incredible opportunity to work “near” the infamous Maya Angelou, it felt like I had died and gone to heaven. She had written the preface to a book we were publishing entitled Hope and Dignity.

Hope and Dignity is a collection of interviews with and photographs of a variety of older black women living in North Carolina. It celebrated the women’s triumphant spirits, having overcome many of life’s obstacles. Back when newspapers had book review sections, the book was favorably reviewed in a number of them, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, and the Winston-Salem Journal, among others.

The best part of the book’s promotion was a weekend-long series of events that were held in North Carolina to celebrate the book’s publication. As the Press’ promotion and sales manager at the time, it required my involvement. And…Maya Angelou lived in North Carolina!

I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I boarded a plane headed for Winston-Salem, a city I’d never been to nor knew anything about until then.

That weekend, I met a host of my literary giants, black women like Paule Marshall and Eleanor Traylor, and sold a lot of copies of Hope and Dignity. But the most incredible event was a dinner at Maya Angelou’s house, prepared and served by none other than the grand lady herself. She sang while she cooked, and danced throughout the house to music, some of it live from a duo of gospel singers she’d also invited. The meal was spaghetti and meatballs with salad and, needless to say, it was delicious. Maya Angelou was a “phenomenal woman.” I will miss her.

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