She had us from the opening notes.
Dr. Maya Angelou began her “afternoon conversation” yesterday at SIUE by singing the words “When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.” On the word “rainbow,” she soulfully dropped her voice down to this deep, lower register, and when she did...oh, oh, my.
Somewhere in the black bottom of that song, Angelou was invoking and invocating all kinds of African American cultural and expressive traditions. Beginning with that low-down rainbow and moving throughout the presentation, we watched Maya Angelou being Maya Angelou, which is to say we were witnessing this elder, captivating black woman marvelously adapting the personas of a poet, storyteller, teacher, blues singer, preacher, and testifier.
Her performance seemed to confirm Eugene B. Redmond’s introductory remarks concerning an observation made years ago by author Alex Haley: “Maya Angelou might be six people.” Six people, hunh? Ok, how about these?
With that deep raspy singing voice, she could’ve been Billie Holiday during her later years or even further back, she could’ve been some spirit of Ma Rainey. That recurring presence of first-person plural perspectives in her verse suggested she was some version of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Margaret Walker Alexander. With the humor, she might’ve been Hughes or Hurston. Perhaps, with the focus on courage, she was some shade of Fannie Lou Famer….or Sojourner Truth. But perhaps, she was more contemporary.
With such wit and wisdom, she was passing as Toni Morrison. All that bravado on stage, she was like Nikki Giovanni, Oprah Winfrey, or, to take it there, Beyonce even. Maybe just maybe, with all that radiance, she was a blueprint of, let’s see, Michelle Obama at 81.
We currently have this exhibit Eighty Moods of Maya Angelou up in the library, and even with all the images, when I consider the whole of Lovejoy Library's EBR Collection, I keep telling folks, "and this is just the tip of the iceberg."
As I thought of Angelou's presentation in the context of African American performance and expressive traditions, I was raising a similar sentiment: just the tip of the iceberg, just the tip of the iceberg.