NEW YORK — It was New York’s turn to say goodbye to Maya Angelou.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison were among those sharing memories of the late author and Renaissance woman artist Friday at The Riverside Church in Manhattan, a few blocks west of a Harlem town house that Angelou owned in recent years.
From a stage brightened by beds of white roses, it was a chance for friends and family members to pay tribute before hundreds of attendees and for the city itself to claim at least part of her legacy.
Angelou, who died May 28 at age 86, had lived off and on in New York in the 1950s and ’60s and visited often even after she moved to North Carolina, her primary residence over the latter half of her life. As a New Yorker, she appeared in numerous stage productions, was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and directed the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
New York was the “center of her universe,” said Howard Dodson Jr., director emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to which Angelou donated her papers. From the city, she “radiated out to the world” and the world responded in kind. The program was organized by the Schomburg Center, The Riverside Church and Angelou’s longtime publisher, Random House.
In June, Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, was a featured speaker at a memorial held at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where Angelou taught for 30 years. Hillary Clinton recalled on Friday that Angelou had encouraged her husband to run for president back in the early 1990s. She made no reference to a possible campaign for herself in 2016, but noted that Angelou had been supportive of her run in 2008, when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York was defeated in the Democratic primary by Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton said she first learned of Angelou through her celebrated memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which came out in 1970. She read the book over and over and gave it to her mother, who, like Angelou, had been sent off as a little girl to live with her grandmother. She described Angelou’s life as so vast that anyone could relate to it.
“You’re Italian? Maya spoke Italian. You’re a dancer? So was she. You’re from San Francisco? She conducted a street car there,” Clinton said. “She knew everyone, lived everywhere, read everything and felt it all.”
Morrison, a friend of Angelou’s for more than 40 years, said that her private generosity was even “more noteworthy” than her public achievements. She noted her respect for the “server and served,” the humble and the elite. She remembered her laugh, her smile, the holding of hands, with “no words, no winks, no nods.” And she was grateful for Angelou’s “soothing voice, on the telephone, at the exact moment when you needed it most.”
“Maya Angelou was the first non-family member to call me out of the blue when my son (Slade) died (in 2010),” said Morrison, who last fall presented Angelou an honorary National Book Award. “We had a short, poignant conversation. I was surprised, and I was thrilled, and I was calmed by that call.”
The event also featured Angelou’s grandson, Colin Ashanti Johnson; her Random House editor, Robert Loomis; a gospel quartet, the Brown Sisters; and a recording of Angelou’s voice during Valerie Simpson’s spirited performance of “I’m Every Woman,” which Simpson helped write. The poet Nikki Giovanni began her brief recitation by asking “What makes a life extraordinary?”
Laughing when scared
Singing when lonely
Loving when abandoned
Never turning away from the future
Never ceasing to be better
Never shying away from the difficult, the dangerous , the delicate chores of living
that make a life extraordinary
that makes, for all of us, a Maya.