Chance encounters, constant inspiration, songs on a train readers share their moments and memories with a legend
Gary Younge: My time with Maya - 'fine as wine in summertime'
Tayari Jones: 'Her love of the good life was an inspiration'
There are the late greats in their own words, always, of course. But sometimes the influence of a leader like Maya Angelou is best understood not so much in broad, sweeping statements or even obituaries as in the memories of the people she touched.
Following the announcement of Angelou's death on Wednesday, we asked you to tell us how you'll remember the literary giant, and we received over 200 responses in just 24 hours. We're publishing a selection of your stories about meeting her, seeing her speak, and how her words have helped you through hardships.
Nearly nine years ago, during one of the most difficult bouts of domestic abuse, my best friend photocopied Still I Rise for me to give me courage. I stuck it on my refrigerator door and read it every day until I was brave enough one late October night to turn and tell him that it was over, and that he would hurt us no more. When I moved into my new house as a single woman and a lone parent to three children, finally flying solo, I dug that photocopied poem out of its packing box, stuck it on my fridge, and it remained there until I needed it no longer. The sass and strength of a woman I would never meet has saved me many times over. That poem was my prayer. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Kelly, Norwich, UK
I had the pleasure and privilege to hear her speak in the packed auditorium of a community college in Bangor, Maine. At the ripe age of 81, sassier than ever in her glittering jacket, she took a moment to praise the middle-aged women who attended the community college. She tipped her hat to their courage and strength, as many of them were simultaneously raising children. My mother also returned to school while raising my sister and me. It was truly a gift Angelou's ability to recognize women and all people for their perseverance and triumphs (when society may not), to remind us of the importance of our own voice, and to stand up to injustice. Tasheana Dukuly, Lowell, Massachusetts
I grew up in a southern Louisiana town right outside of New Orleans; the exact same town that overwhelmingly voted for David Duke, the retired KKK grand wizard, to be governor the year of my birth. My mother, in an act of defiance aimed at the unabashedly prejudiced K-12 school I attended, had me recite I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Still I Rise annually at our school's talent competition.
Every year I was met with harsh eyes and a quiet drum of forced applause. But year after year my mother put me in my Sunday Best, braided my un-permed hair, and told me to go make Maya proud. Maya and my mother taught me how to be proud of my blackness, my female-ness, and therefore my inherent ability to rise after being struck down. I have carried her works with me throughout life, and I owe her more than I can explain here. All I can say is my friend, my sister, I hope you go to a most glorious rest.You gave me peace and hope in a town where there was neither. Ariel Gaines, Washington DC
I never met Maya, but as a young African deep in Africa, I relate. We are still fighting for young women to be heard and respected. We fight and pray to stop abuse, and amidst all this we strive on because those who have walked before us have conquered and given us hope. We are inspired to be like Maya. I rejoice in her life well lived! Aluta continua for all women all over the world we fight to be loved and to be protected, and thank Maya for her tremendous role in the fight. Ntombizodwa Thendele, Kempton Park, Gauteng, South Africa
I served her dinner once at a hotel in Wales. I looked after her party all evening and in the small hours, she acknowledged me with grace and gratitude. She asked me my name and sang Danny Boy to me. I couldn't look at her for the tears in my eyes. She didn't know that I was named after that song. Daniel Brake, Sydney
Just another long and boring Sunday afternoon train journey from Liverpool to London, in 1987. My friend Al Clinton and I decided we would walk the entire length of the train rehearsing a vocal harmony he had been trying to teach me for weeks. A hush descended when we reached the largely unoccupied first class carriage compartments, but we continued, only to be interrupted by the drawl of a voice: "What's that you're singing?" A beautiful beaming smile settled on us. White, white teeth, sparkling eyes and a smile that lit up that dull afternoon. We began to chat, about songs, about Liverpool, about where we were heading and why. The statuesque American black lady sipped her whiskey and asked if we would join her. Four hours of song, laughter, stories, drinks and bonhomie followed. Not once did she tell us who she was. We went on our way, excited about our new friend. The lady was Maya Angelou. Jacinta Stringer, UK
Back in school, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Angelou for my radio show. She certainly didn't need to speak with me, but she said that she admired how accessible her friend Dr King remained throughout his (short) life, and tried to do the same for her admirers. We spoke for just a few minutes - her speaking eloquently and with conviction, and me just trying to hold my shit together.
After the interview, she invited me to see her speak at the Warner Theater in downtown DC. She shared stories about her life, and sung songs like We Shall Overcome in the theater that was once subject to segregation. When I met her backstage, she sat in a wheelchair and needed oxygen to breathe, but remained alert and magnanimous in the face of it all.
When I stood next to her to take a picture, I began to bend over so I could be at her level. She told me to stop, and that I should "Bow only before God." For me, it was less a religious statement than a testament to her only being on earth to teach, share and serve. Humility despite worldwide fame.
She signed a book I could give to my mother on her birthday, and off I went. It was only a brief moment, but over the next few days you'll read and see things about how generous and special she was. I'm here to say that every bit of that is true. Jesse Regis, New York City
I was fortunate enough to meet her in person about 10 years ago I sat at her feet and listened to her stories. She noticed a tattoo on my shoulder of Animal from the Muppets and shrieked delightfully as she said, "How nice! Art you can take with you!" It was one of the best times of my life. Laura Kat, Miami
When I was an angst-filled 14-year-old, I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and it changed my life. Suddenly, I knew that I didn't have to be ordinary.Marti Gilley, Stapleton, Alabama
My wife and I tussled over the name of our second child; just after she was born, her mother was asked what she would call her; she answered with unswerving conviction that her name was Maya, after the writer. Roy Tonkin, London
My maternal grandmother is about the same age as Dr Angelou. She was born in California, deported with her family for being Mexican as a child, and spent most of her young life in Mexico before returning to the US. I know my grandmother faced many difficulties as a child and a young woman - abuse, racism, poverty. She has never spoken to me about those, but thankfully, Maya Angelou did. Magdalena Barajas, Brooklyn, NY
I saw Maya Angelou when she played the Liverpool Philharmonic in the '90s. I almost didn't go into the hall that night. I had gone alone and was of low mood, and suffering with depression. But something pushed me into the hall, three rows from the stage. At one point, in her magnificent way, she looked directly at me, pointed and said, "How can you love someone if you don't love yourself? Would you trust a naked man if he offered you his shirt?" She changed my life that night, as she touched the hearts of many. Sophia Blow, Liverpool, UK