When Amiri Baraka died in January, I felt the same stunned emptiness one feels when a family member dies; it was a hovering sorrow I couldn’t shake. I’d known him for years. My daughters were close friends of his sons, and my husband and I had attended parties at his and Amina’s rambling house so filled with music, art and history you were joyful long after you left.
I have one memory of him that stays with me. I was on a book tour in Heidelberg, Germany, nervous as a cat before reading to a foreign audience. I glanced up and there was Amiri, in town on a lecture tour, standing in the doorway. He stopped by just long enough to give me a mischievous grin followed by a quick salute that said I had his blessing. I knew at that moment that everything would be okay.
The loss of this great man is generational as well as personal. We quoted his poems by heart; his words grew in the marrow of our bones. We tried to make his voice our own—that bold, urgent, staccato that captured our rage and reminded us of our beauty. He is irreplaceable, and we will miss him forever.
The depth of my sorrow upon hearing of Maya Angelou’s death surprised me. Yes, I loved her books but hadn’t read them in years. She was in her mid-eighties and ill so her passing wasn’t unexpected. Yet I found myself weeping whenever I heard her voice. I’d met her at a brunch once and been so dumb-stuck before her I could barely speak. Not that I needed to. She was warm, gracious and genuinely kind, and I felt welcomed in her company without saying a word.
Recently I began re-reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and suddenly realized why I had been so touched. As always, the beauty of her writing moved me, but her words also brought back the lives of my mother and grandmother; she had given them voice. Although they came from loving, happy families, life in the segregated South was fraught with meanness and suffering of which they never spoke. They had loved me too much to share the harshness of that particular burden.
As poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote in a poignant tribute in The New York Times, “…with words, she rendered not only her own life visible but also nothing short of a history of black social movements in the second half of the 20th century, and the participation of a woman, and women who helped to make it happen, against a million odds…” By generously sharing her own story, Dr. Angelou helped me to understand my own.
I met Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis several times through the years and was always struck by how friendly and encouraging they were to aspiring writers like me. They were beloved members of the black theater community for good reason—both were warm and extraordinarily talented. Ruby could take any character--from Ruth Younger in Raisin in the Sun to Mama Lucas in American Gangster—and make her immediately believable and sympathetic, forcing you to take her into your heart.
But I never realized just how deep her artistry lay until I heard her read in person. It was a significant anniversary of the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I was one of several writers invited to be on a panel with her. I have no memory of what I said—inconsequential, I’m sure—but those of us there were transfixed by the excerpts Ms Dee read. She captured Janie, Pheoby, and Nanny with such nuance and vividness that tears came to everyone’s eyes—and in my case sliding down my face. It was truly unforgettable. The lights on Broadway dimmed the day she died. A light dimmed in my heart as well.
Photo of Amiri Baraka: Courtesy Henry Ferrini, Gloucester Writers Center, MA 2013