I was an overnight guest
of Maya Angelou
Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out magazine, recalls the time he drank whisky and talked Rabbie Burns with the great American poet and author
Sunday 10 January 2016 10.30 GMT
First came the instructions. It was recommended that I call her by her honorific, Doctor.
Also: she would typically retire to her bedroom no later than 10pm. I would be wise to follow suit. I can’t recall exactly why I – a mere journalist writing a profile for a Sunday paper – was invited overnight as a guest of Maya Angelou, but you don’t turn down such offers. So there I was, late in the summer of 2003, on a guided tour of her garden in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, hoping that my spotty research (I’d had to speed-read her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, on the flight from New York) did not give me away as a dilettante.
We sat in her gazebo as Angelou talked about the wonder of discovering Shakespeare, Dickens and Burns as a child. She was shortly due to fly to Scotland to mark Burns Night, and I’ve a vivid memory of nursing a second or third glass of Johnnie Walker Blue (her drink of choice) while she entertained me with a reading of “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”. She loved Burns and identified with him deeply, recalling how his poems reached out to her through the tide of misery and injustice that washed over her childhood, restoring a sense of self-worth and dignity. As she talked, the night descended, the drone of insects filled the air.
We drove to Duke University the next day, a journey of about 90 minutes in a chauffeur-driven car, liberally fortified by Johnnie Walker Blue and several bottles of Angelou’s favourite white wine, Chateau Ste Michelle. She was delivering the convocation address for first-year students, a longstanding tradition, for which I was given a front-row seat in the university’s enormous chapel. In streamed the students, a sea of glossy young faces awaiting the legend. Finally Maya Angelou emerged from behind the chancel to generous applause. Slowly she made her way towards the lectern; slowly she lifted her face to the expectant crowd, and slowly she spoke: “The last time I came to Duke I received a standing ovation,” she said in that rich, sonorous voice that compels attention. “Let’s try again, shall we.”
And with that, Angelou exited into the recess of the chapel, gave her perplexed audience a few seconds to prepare, and walked back on – this time to a standing ovation. Thus buoyed up, she began her speech – a recitation of “The Gambler”, the song immortalised by country singer Kenny Rogers – much as a preacher might deliver a sermon. No irony was involved. We were congregants in a church.
Angelou believed that everything was poetry – a popular radio hit was as valid as a Shakespeare sonnet. Nothing about her was elitist – but Dr Angelou put a high premium on respect. Woe betide anyone who forgot it.