Arts, Culture & Media

A long-time friend recalls the laughter and joy that epitomized Maya Angelou

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Credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

Maya Angelou receives a Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, February 15, 2011.

Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou met in New York City more than 40 years ago, though the exact date has been lost to the folds of history. They both ran in the same circles of 1950s and 1960s poets, musicians and activists. But they quickly found they had much in common.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Angelou, a world-renowned poet and author, died Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.

Giovanni, an acclaimed writer, poet and activist in her own right, notes that Angelou’s artistic career took a different path from her own. Before Angelou was a poet, she was an actress, and Giovanni says the influence of stage was visible in her work.

“She was a great storyteller,” Giovanni says.

But perhaps even more than Angelou's work, Giovanni admired her friend’s vibrant approach to life.

“She just had a good American touch for always finding the good,” Giovanni says. She says when she thinks of Angelou, she remembers a phrase Alex Haley of Roots (a friend of both Angelou’s and Giovanni’s) liked to use: “Find the good.”

“I think Maya was probably the major practitioner of ‘find the good and praise it,’” Giovanni says.

Giovanni’s last memory of Angelou is from a visit six months ago, when Giovanni and her aunt, Agnes, drove down to Winston-Salem for lunch with Angelou.

“Agnes knows every song that’s been sung up to 1960, but you know Maya knows every song," Giovanni explains. "So they were sitting around singing old Broadway songs — I’m so sorry I didn’t record it. It was the most fun thing, and we were just laughing — and that’s what Agnes said, ‘I’ll always remember the laughter.’”

That laughter — that joy — says Giovanni, epitomized Angelou’s spirit.

“The one thing that needs to be remembered when we think about Maya is that every bit of love and joy that can be squeezed out of life, she got it. You can look at Gandhi and Mother Teresa and stuff — but when you talk about who lived a full and a good and a complete life, you come back to Maya,” she says.

This interview first appeared on PRI's The Takeaway, a public media show that invites you to be a part of the American conversation.

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