Why I Called Maya Angelou ‘Mother’

5 minute read
Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of 50 for Your Future: Lessons From Down the Road

We are who we are because somebody loved us.

It might not have been the person who should have loved you, but you are who you are because somebody chose to love you.

I feel blessed beyond measure to have a mother, Joyce Smiley, who loves me unreservedly. A mother who has sacrificed for me in myriad ways, and yet tells me all the time how blessed she is to be my mother, how proud she is to be loved by me.

How fortunate am I? Good Lord.

If being embraced by a love this rich and deep wasn’t enough already, later in my young adult life I had the good fortune of calling Maya Angelou “Mother” as well.

When we met I was in my twenties and Maya was almost 60, a strong and vital presence. I had suffered a crushing defeat in my campaign for Los Angeles city council, trying to fulfill my desire to be a public servant. I felt a sharp sense of rejection.

“Perhaps because of my long history as a dancer, actress and writer, rejection is something with which I am all too familiar,” Dr. Angelou said to me.

“Your accomplishments in those fields and beyond, though, are legendary,” I responded.

“Yes, but for every accomplishment there were twenty rejections. A dance company thought my style was incompatible with theirs. A casting director found me lacking. An editor considered my writing too fanciful, or too plain, too abstract or too concrete. I could go on for hours. In the end, though, only one attitude enabled me to move ahead. That attitude said, ‘Rejection can simply mean redirection.’ To cite an example from your life, Tavis, you could easily postulate that without the rejection you experienced at the polls, you would not have been redirected to join me for this trip here to Accra, Ghana. Do you find my reasoning at all plausible?”

“I do.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then it’s not silly to see rejection as a gift whose contents and character may not be known until a later time. But that doesn’t mean that the gift isn’t real. It doesn’t mean that the gift isn’t precious. And it doesn’t mean that the gift isn’t helping us to subtly shift our thinking from willful expectation to grateful acceptance. We want our journey to be directed by God, not our adamant insistence that things go our way.”

The chance to travel to Africa with Maya Angelou, my very first trip out of the country, was a life-affirming and life-altering experience. Almost 30 years later, I still don’t quite know what to make of the fact that the opportunity of lifetime happened at the very moment that I was trying to find my voice, my place in the world, by reclaiming my name from the lost and found.

What I do know is that Maya Angelou and I went on to share a friendship for 28 years. A friendship that I count as one of the great blessings of my life. She appeared — and kept appearing — exactly when my spirit required repair. I do not consider those appearances coincidences, but rather divine encounters.

Although I still don’t exactly understand why, I’m eternally grateful that Maya didn’t allow the gulf in our age, experience, intellect or worldview to stop a friendship waiting to happen. A friendship that over time grew into a loving mother-son relationship.

I still don’t have a language to describe how it felt the day Maya said to me, “I know your parents raised you to respect your elders, Tavis, but this ‘Dr. Angelou’ business has gone far enough. At this point we can afford to be less formal.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure what to call you. Is ‘Sister Maya’ all right?”

“Sister?” she asked. “When I think of you, son, I think of myself as more of a mother than a sister.”

That statement melted my heart.

With some hesitation, I forced the words out of my mouth. “Mother Maya.”

“Son,” she said, “that sounds mighty good to me.”

I called her ‘Mother Maya’ until she passed away last year.

She opened her heart and her home to me. She let me be me in her presence— without judgment.

For a young black man trying to find his voice and make his way in the world, that’s the most precious gift of all: unconditional love.

Tavis Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS, and author of My Journey With Maya

Read next: Tavis Smiley on Baltimore

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