Backstage with Maya
How a Few Moments with a Down-to-Earth Legend Changed My Life
As a young poet, I sat open-mouthed and riveted as Dr. Maya Angelou delivered her stunning, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the first inauguration of President Clinton on January 20, 1993. After having read, re-read and read again my dog-eared copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I was shocked to learn that for many in our great nation, this was their first experience with the likes of Ms. Angelou.
After the ceremony, I snapped off the television and dashed to my desk, elated and determined to pay poetic tribute to a woman I’d already pledged my unwavering allegiance to. However, as the day wore on, I found myself feeling bereft.
I stuffed the poem into the middle oak drawer and stared at the snow-covered tree outside my window. How could I, I chided myself, an unknown writer, ever find a way to get this poem into Maya’s hands?
Two years later, Margaret (Pokey) Crocker, the indefatigable executive director of The Discovery Center, a children’s museum in Binghamton, New York, provided an answer. She was bringing an “Evening with Maya Angelou,” to Binghamton University’s Anderson Center later that spring. The event would serve as a fundraiser for Ms. Crocker’s museum and be sure to sell-out.
Ms. Crocker felt strongly that the poet in the program should be both African American and female. She asked if I’d be this poet.
If I were a person who fainted easily, I would have promptly toppled over. After I recovered from the initial shock, I accepted her offer with profuse thanks and what I hoped was dignified professionalism, particularly since I also sat on her Board of Directors.
But after I replaced the receiver, I sprang from the sofa, hooting, hollering, shrieking and yes, even twirling. Had anyone happened upon me in those moments, they would have surely notified the appropriate mental health officials.
I spent the long winter months alternating between excitement and panic. Finally, the much anticipated moment came when we were alerted that Dr. Angelou was on her way to the theatre. She had already shopped at Wegmans and cooked her own dinner (something she had insisted upon doing).
I held my breath when I first saw her, sitting backstage, expressionless; holding an ice pack against what I’d suspected was a recently injured knee.
I was nursing a few wounds of my own, but they were mostly invisible.
Like Ms. Angelou, I was the descendant of both slaveholders and the enslaved. My mother had picked cotton and been raped repeatedly. She suffered from numerous phobias and anxieties. My biological father was a drug addict. My stepfather was an alcoholic. I was still in an emotionally abusive relationship that had dogged my collegiate years and wreaked havoc with my self-confidence. Even with these many traumas and difficulties, the hardest part was also knowing that all of these people loved me, they were just too hurt to see past their own trauma. I remembered in a flash, how this set off my lifelong desire to “rescue,” “fix,” and “save.”
Dr. Angelou’s assistant cleared her throat and waved me over. I stumbled awkwardly through my “hellos.” Then, Ms. Angelou spoke to me in that deep, legendary voice of hers. I almost pinched myself but resisted.
“Ms. Berry, although I love all the serenading by the children and what not,” (referring to the pre-show of which I was a part), I must tell you that I am very anxious to get on that stage and perform. Surely, as a performer, you must understand,” she declared.
I nodded feebly, kneeling before her, my hands twisting, my voice shaking. I told her that I was her opening poet, but my poem was short and I would “do my very best.” I shared this information as if I was posing a question, rather than making a declarative statement.
“My dear,” Ms. Angelou roared, pulling the ice pack away from her tender knee and wincing, “never demure!” She leaned closer and poked a finger at me. “You are a proud black woman! Stand tall and do that poem justice.”
Then she rose to her full height of six feet (that actually seemed more like eight feet at the time), and said, “and to make sure that you do just that, Ms. Berry, for you, I will stand.” She escorted me to the stage and positioned herself where she’d be visible to me, but not to the audience.
I had no time to comprehend the enormity of this historic moment. I just knew I’d better deliver.
With a sold-out crowd of over one thousand people in front of me and Dr. Angelou implanted in my peripheral vision, I felt fire surging through my veins, the whispers of ancestors in my ears, a sudden peace.
Offstage, I glided into her outstretched arms. She praised me over and over, folding me into her embrace. “Never stop writing and speaking, not even for a moment. You have a gift,” she said over her shoulder as she strode onto the stage and into wave after wave of thunderous applause.
Never once through her performance did she give any indication of the terrible pain in her knee. Not once did she falter.
In those brief moments backstage, she’d imparted life lessons which would shape my life. She taught me the difference between off-stage and on-stage. She encouraged me to choose love over fear.
Most importantly, she believed in a young writer who did not yet believe in herself.
After that evening, I would easily become irate when anyone tried to critique my writing. I felt I had been ‘knighted’ by Dr. Angelou and was essentially above reproach. What I learned, in time, was that I wasn’t “knighted,” in so much as I was “ignited” — to lift as I climbed, to inspire others.
I left my abusive relationship. I was accepted as a Cave Canem Poetry Fellow. I went on to become the second Poet Laureate of my county. I appeared on Good Morning America. I opened in poetry and song for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
Several years ago, I initiated a correspondence with Ms. Angelou’s longtime assistant, expressing my deep gratitude and appreciation. I remarked at how often “Ms. Maya” taught the world to choose love over hate, but how she didn’t suffer fools. I loved, too, how she encouraged us to take offense each and every time a person said: “don’t take any offense but…”
Most importantly, I shared how those precious moments backstage changed my life.
Now that Ms. Angelou has completed “that awful rowing toward God,” (a phrase she used often and credited to Anne Sexton) I am saddened beyond measure. We have lost not only one of the world’s greatest treasures, but one of its most abiding mothers.
If I close my eyes, I can see her again, departing after her show in Binghamton in 1995.
As her limousine pulls away, throngs of audience members chase after her car, still hungry for her voice and her autograph.
The dark night holds a fistful of stars.
She motions for her driver to stop. She puts down the window.
The crowd swells. People cry out, thrusting hands and papers in her direction.
She sticks her head out of the window and says regally, with amazement, “Why on earth would you want my autograph, when I just gave you my soul?”
Indeed, beloved Maya, indeed.