Remembering Maya Angelou

Dear Editor,

What more is there to say about that ‘phenomenal woman,’ our sister Maya Angelou… just transitioned to join the ancestors? As the world bids farewell to this exceptional icon of our time with kudos flowing from fans everywhere, I am remembering her in a few very personal ways.

There’s that time I returned to the USA after a long time away; Maya Angelou was not gentle about rapping me over the knuckles demanding –

“Where have you been all this time? Since Julian’s death no one heard from you.”

Julian Mayfield was Maya’s dear friend and my husband. I can still see her now as she stood almost 30 years ago, on the Howard University Andrew Rankin Chapel pulpit delivering the eulogy at his funeral service. Maya Angelou’s tears flowed as she stressed over and over again

– “He was my Brother, he was my Very Brother!”

Here was a woman grieving for a compassionate friend, a buddy; a man who respected her womanhood. I recall, even when there was a brief falling out between them over a story Julian Mayfield wrote in the anthology Ten Times Black that fictionalized a real life romantic episode Maya felt clearly identified her as the protagonist, there were no serious daggers drawn; the rift quickly repaired.

I tried to explain my reason for “escaping” a scholar’s desk at the Library of Congress to make my way to the source of all those captivating accounts of Marches of El Dorado; expeditions through Guyana’s Rainforest, the least spoilt of the two pristine tropical forests left on Planet Earth.   That move meant losing touch with Maya and most of Julian Mayfield’s and my own friends. There were no mailboxes anywhere closer than twenty miles from Yukuriba Falls and in those times, the Internet was definitely not an option.

“…but I wrote you, Maya…have letters in a file I call ‘Letters That Never Got Sent’…I plan to… ”

“We all have those,” Maya Angelou snapped. She was scolding, a teacher accustomed to instilling her vision, instructing the way forward; she had no patience with drop-outs. I bristled a little and we lost touch again.

The night before his funeral, Maya Angelou had sat in a rocking chair in our apartment in Maryland, I on the floor beside her. That was when she asked me to turn over Julian’s papers to her Wake Forest University for a generous financial offer. I declined. “You work for a white university Maya, what would become of Julian’s papers if you were to drop dead?” I’ve always regretted putting it so bluntly (don’t believe Maya ever forgave me either), but never have I regretted my decision to choose the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library; especially since The Schomburg assured me that at one point The Julian Mayfield Papers were the most widely read among their collections.

My choice of Schomburg was influenced by a vision of widespread dissemination of information and education about that epoch in which Maya Angelou with Julian Mayfield and their African American brothers and sisters played a significant role; those historic years in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana when they rallied behind the African leader’s policy of nonalignment and his vision for the unification of Africa. Maya Angelou wrote for The African Review; Tom Feelings, the late great African American artist, was illustrator and Julian Mayfield, Editor.

My personal memory of Maya that’s full of regret, is of the time just before his death when she called her friend to invite us to her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina. She wanted Julian to hear her read from her just completed manuscript. I should’ve been there with him, but, consumed with my work on the novel: Clarise Cumberbatch Want to Go Home, chose not to go. Julian returned home enthusing about meeting Dizzy Gillespie at a thoroughly enjoyable breakfast gathering in Maya’s kitchen. I had missed an invaluable opportunity to share with the gifted and prolific writer Maya Angelou, the first flush of her joy in completing the manuscript of her book: Heart of a Woman, as well as the chance to meet a phenomenal musician.

Another fond remembrance of Maya Angelou is of being with Julian Mayfield, a guest at a dinner party she hosted. Maya was married to Paul de Feu, and (it seemed to me) very much in love. They were living in San Francisco. Her other guests at the party were the political activist Angela Davis, Nobel Prize Author, Toni Morrison, at that time an Editor at Random House, and the late Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death. Without a doubt, I was too much in awe to be anything more than speechless.

Apart from those two occasions – Julian Mayfield’s demise, and at that dinner party in San Francisco – I’ve never met Maya Angelou in person, but have kept up with her illustrious career the best way I could from here in Guyana. All our interaction beside has been by telephone; most recently (less than a year ago), to suggest she write a Foreword to the unpublished: Tales of the Lido, a manuscript in the Schomburg’s Mayfield collection.

The Lido, as it was described to me, was a club, a Ghanaian watering hole where African Americans mingled with other members of the international community in that momentous epoch of African history. WEB Du Bois was there; so was Malcolm X on a mission to establish the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and a guest in the Mayfield home when Julian was married to Dr Ana Livia Cordero. Herman Bailey, Alice Windom, the Doctors Calvin and Eleanor Sinnette, Leslie Lacey, Jim Lacey and Curtis Morrow were there also, and Dr John Hendrik Clarke passed through. These are some of the names that peopled the stories I recall, stories that Julian Mayfield loved to tell of that euphoric time when, according to Jim Lacey, “We could not wait to get up in the morning.”

And Maya Angelou was with them all.

This from an email I sent her before we spoke on the phone:

“… I recall Julian describing times you shared with the rest of the African American community that surged to Ghana to energize Kwame Nkrumah’s thrust to unify the continent… the bouquet of those heady times of The Lido and Ghana/Africa still lingers in my imagination.   A foreword… introduction (or whatever you choose to name it) in your inimitable voice, made even more effective by its empirical tone…would be an exquisite distillation. This is my personal conception of your contribution to this publication of Tales of the Lido.”

I believe Maya Angelou has written the Foreword to Tales of the Lido because she promised me she’d write it, declaring emphatically –

“…I will do it for Julian!”

Maya’s assistant Mrs Bettie Clay will know…perhaps Raphael Mayfield, Julian’s elder son, with the co-operation of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, will ensure that Tales of the Lido is published. It ought to be; it represents a slice of the colourful life that was Maya Angelou’s.

Maya Angelou! I see her now united again with her “very brother” Julian Mayfield; joining her own in unison with his and other significant ancestral voices addressing the condition of our people throughout Global Africa/Guyana still fighting for freedom, justice and basic survival on these endless plantations – then on to now; voices with “too much to claim” that will not be stilled.

Yours faithfully,
Joan Cambridge-Mayfield
aka Bassidy Dolly D Guyana
Rainforest Bag-Lady

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