Throughout the fall of 1974, a tall black woman with an infectious laugh and hypnotic voice would stride across the Sacramento State campus like the pied piper, followed by an entourage of students. “They’d be skipping along happily because Maya could strut, she was an athlete, she worked out,” recalled Eugene Redmond, the CSUS professor who recruited Maya Angelou as a distinguished visiting professor of philosophy.
“She would tell her students, ‘Never forget how important you are; you came into the world for a purpose. You have a mission. ’” recalled Redmond, who became Angelou’s lifelong friend and gave 32 interviews worldwide after she died Wednesday at age 86. “She’d say ‘skinny, fat, gay, straight, black, white, Asian – we’re alike in more ways than unalike,’ ” Redmond recalled. “That was the thrust of her life.”
Angelou, one of America’s best known poets, touched millions with her words and her amazing journey. The 7-year-old girl raped by a relative in rural Arkansas. The 16-year-old teen mother who became prostitute and madam at 20. The first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, who wore an Afro long before it represented the politics of change. The exotic dancer, fry cook, auto detailer, Calypso singer, actress, director, playwright, and anti-war and civil rights activist.
Many of the lives she touched were in the Sacramento region, where she taught philosophy, literature and writing to thousands of students in classes and appearances at Sacramento City College, UC Davis, University of the Pacific and the annual Third World Writers And Thinkers Symposium organized by another famous poet and artist at CSUS, the late Jose Montoya, Redmond recalled. Angelou lived in Berkeley and Sonoma, and often visited Stockton where her mother, Vivian Baxter, was a community activist.
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“She interacted with thousands of students,” said Redmond, who taught English, poetry and ethnic studies at CSUS from 1970 to 1985. “She’d tell them she wanted to live with passion, compassion, verve and style. She had a bright, big spirit and she’d teach that you should love without holding back,” Redmond said. “I still need to hear that.”
Angelou infected everyone from jocks to chemistry majors with her love of words and poetry, Redmond said. “She’d open by saying, ‘I have somebody to share with you and I’m going to put it in rhythm,’ whether it’s about the shoeshine boy in Times Square or her grandmother.”
She taught them that the most important virtue is courage, “because without courage you can’t practice any of the other virtues, such as love,” Redmond said. “She had the courage to spill her life.” And she expected the same of her friends. “There were three things you had to do whenever you sat with Maya: you had to become a raconteur, ‘tell some stories, tall tales and lies.’ You had to drink with her, preferably a spirit, but it could be apple or tomato juice; and you had to have a bite to eat with her.”
Redmond first ran into Angelou in the late 1960s at rallies, conferences, open-air plays, workshops, readings and protests in New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “The world was churning, and when I saw her I was moved by her power, deep conviction, artistic sensibility and her ability to think well on her feet and perform,” he said. He approached her at a performance at Sacramento City College in 1970, and she asked him to join her at the Ming Tree on Fair Oaks Boulevard, which became one of her favorite haunts.
She looked at him and said “in her deep, emphatic, almost masculine voice: ‘Eugene, be my brother forever!’ ” said Redmond, who was totally disarmed. He agreed, and from then on, he said, “she had my back and I had hers.” He and professor David Covin recruited Angelou to come to CSUS, where she taught about 30 students Tuesdays and Thursdays, crashing at Redmond’s Sacramento home. “Talk about a great cook – she’d do chicken, racks of lamb, pork braised and baked, she loved steaks, magnificent salads and carmelized dishes.”
Angelou taught her students philosophy and literature, from Beowulf to T.S. Elliot, Aristotle to black student civil rights leader Stokley Carmichael, Redmond said. “Stokely Carmichael used to say life had to be about something, so all of her life she was about something,” Redmond said. Angelou, who was married briefly to a South African freedom fighter, admired Civil War generals and the great warriors of history who went to bat for their people, always linking philosophy to the liberation struggle.
Angelou connected the struggles of migrant workers in Watsonville, Ariz., and New Mexico to the civil rights struggle and ended her class with a play about them. Lisa Lacy, a student who performed the opening poem, had read Angelou’s autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” when she was a student at Kennedy High School. As a young black girl growing up in south Sacramento, where she and her friends suffered racial slurs and had bottles thrown at them, “she was my hero,” Lacy said of Angelou. “It wasn’t just her size, it was her demeanor. She was this queen walking across campus with this trail of students.”
Lacy said Angelou helped ordinary people like her “to envision a life greater than the norm and seek to live it.” Angelou inspired her to become an actress, poet, activist and a teacher. Lacy now runs Images Theatre Company of Sacramento, which recently performed her play “Livin’ Out Loud” in Los Angeles. She also teaches in the Sacramento City Unified School District’s Any Given Child art program.
Angelou’s voice still resonates here. UC Davis professor Andy Jones plays her recordings on “Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour” from 5-6 p.m. Wednesday on KDVS. “I teach her in my introduction to poetry and literature classes,” said Jones, who saw Angelou at UC Davis when she performed without a script at Freeborn Hall in the mid ’90s. “She’s important because she offers an accessible view of the African American female experience.” Jones said. “She dealt with incredible pain, hardship and poverty, and yet in her poetry and writing, she delivers an uplifting message of resolve and courage and hope.”
Redmond will never forget Angelou’s lack of bitterness, and her confidence and love. “She said there was no excuse for not being good, even excellent, even superior at something you want to do, something you love.” And her love was unconditional. “She could talk you into going and hugging a relative you’d been estranged from for a long time. That was just incredible.”
Redmond is now the Poet Laureate of East St. Louis, Ill., but he comes back to visit Sacramento every year. He will host a chat room at the Women’s Civic Improvement Club in Oak Park at 10:30 a.m. Saturday as part of the first Sacramento Black Book Fair.