It was March 1999, and I had been invited to the Children’s Defense Fund property at the former Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee by my Spelman sister and icon CDF founder Marian Wright Edelman for the dedication of The Langston Hughes Library. Architect Maya Linn had designed and re-serviced the barn on the beautiful wooded property into a natural, sunny library that did its collection and namesake proud.
Assembled there with Dr. Edelman that weekend was an extraordinary group of people that included Rep. Maxine Waters, John Edgar Wideman, Hillary Clinton, Joyce Carol Oates, Martha Stewart, choreographer Louis Johnson, Andrew Young and readings on separate evenings by Toni Morrison and Dr. Maya Angelou.
It was heady company, indeed. I met folks whose work and lives I had followed and admired since I was a beginning journalist in the ‘70s. However, the image I treasure from that incredible weekend in Tennessee was the sight of my husband, filmmaker Jonee’ Ansa, coming in from a cold rainy night, entering the classy white heated tent set up for an elegant supper with who else but Dr. Maya Angelou on his arm! Let me tell you, they came strolling in, arm-in-arm, like dear old friends! Chatting and laughing and whispering. I watched for a moment, stunned.
Jonee’ and I had only been separated for a moment. As we had entered minutes earlier, we had spied Dr. Angelou arriving in a plain black sedan. She was led to the canopy but there was a glitch and no one was right there to greet her. Well, Jonee’ looked at me and I said “Yeah!” So, he swooped in to keep her company while I went to alert the event co-ordinators that Dr. Angelou had arrived. I delivered my message and hurried back to the entrance to “assist” my husband with Dr. Angelou.
That’s when I saw the two of them mosey-ing in in deep conversation as if they were the only two people on the planet. Shoot! I hesitated to interrupt, you know.
Just then, I saw one of the event organizers standing to the side, like me, watching the happy couple as they paused to enjoy a new guffaw. I rushed up to tell her that no one was greeting Dr. Maya Freaking Angelou!!
She gave me a side-glance and informed me that she had tried and had “been informed by Dr. Angelou” that she, the literary icon. was having a “conversation” with that gentleman. Here, she pointed to Jonee’ and continued, “and would appreciate not being interrupted.”
I looked at the white girl for a moment who gave me another side-eye and, I thought, “Have I lost my mind?! Let me get over here and get my husband!”
Yeah. But I was honest with Dr. Angelou after I interrupted the tete-a-tete. I -reintroduced myself and asked her if it was going to necessary for me to take off my earrings and those heels and fight her in that elegant setting to get my man back for the evening.
Dr. Angelou didn’t miss a beat. She threw back her big beautiful head, let out a peal of a deep throaty laughter that resonated in that tent and looked at me and Jonee’ with joy. She then assured me I could have him back.
It was not my first encounter with her graciousness, wit and joy.
A decade before in 1989, when I had published “Baby of the Family,” my first, longed-for novel, Dr. Angelou was one of the top writers I made sure received copies of my book hot off the press. Amazingly enough, soon after, I received a personal note from Dr. Angelou in my P.O. box on St. Simons Island thanking me for sending the book. However, she wrote, she had already bought her own copy, read it and enjoyed it by the time mine arrived. She gave me encouragement, pride and the hug this baby of the family so needed from a writer I admired and loved.
Dr. Angelou loved Jonee’. She loved me and my work. She loved the idea and actuality of me and him together, artists, creating, collaborating, pissing each other off, sharing.
Of course, we loved her for that as well. For wanting us to be happy and creative and independent and trusting. And in her inimitable way, she showed us how she felt with a nod to the dedications in all my novel: “To Jonee’, whose love sustains me.”
A few years ago, Dr. Angelou sent us copies of a couple of her books. In “Letter to My Daughter,” the inscription reads:
“A token of thanks to Tina McElroy Ansa and Jonee’, whose love sustains her.
TOMORROW’S BLOG (as promised): “Respecting Your Process/Finding Your Voice”