By Jocelyn Womack
How can I fully articulate how magnificent of a person Dr. Maya Angelou was? It is rare to meet someone who manages to exceed all expectations and prove worthy of their legendary status. As a student at Wake Forest University, I had the honor and pleasure of taking two courses with Dr. Angelou. For many of us at Wake Forest, the excitement of getting into one of Dr. Angelou’s classes was rivaled only by graduation day.
One of the courses was a study of liberation through literature and the other was a poetry-based performance class. Unsurprisingly, she exposed us to a seemingly endless amount of literature from a diverse list of writers that ranged from Robert Burns to James Baldwin. Thanks to Dr. Angelou’s class, I discovered one of my favorite writers of all time: Paule Marshall.
Our class enjoyed her tradition of being welcomed into her home where we enjoyed a spaghetti dinner and some of the most delicious sweet tea that I’ve ever had. She pushed our traditional notions of analyzing literature and was kind enough to answer our occasional questions about what it was like to work with or interact with the heroes we’d read about in books or followed in the news.
When I enrolled in Dr. Angelou’s class, I had no idea of how much I would gain as one of her students beyond the classroom and the significant impact she would have on my life. During the spring of my senior year at Wake I visited Dr. Angelou during her office hours. I had a few questions about class and I wanted to see if I could steal a few moments to just pick her brain and soak up some of her greatness.
I ended up speaking with her for about two hours that day. We bonded over everything from being members of the same sorority to our love for Malcolm X to our sadness about the death of Tupac Shakur at such a young age. Indeed, surreal does not even begin to describe the moment when you find yourself listening to Maya Angelou share stories about Tupac on the set of Poetic Justice. We marveled at his accomplishments and lamented the loss of such a brilliant young man.
At the conclusion of our conversation, she asked me what I planned to do after graduation. Like many seniors, I had no clue. I had given some thought to law school, but was not quite ready to sign on for three more years of school. I shared with her that I had accepted an offer to work as an assistant to a writer (Kevin Powell) who I’d met while working in student government at Wake. I also shared that I wanted to maximize my time in New York and to explore my budding interest in journalism while there. The conversation then proceeded as follows:
Dr. Angelou: Well, you know I have friends in New York who work at magazines. Where would you like to work?
Me: (Thinking – Where is this going? Crap. Where do I want to work? Is this really happening? This is getting awkward, you need to respond! Say something! Anything!) I’m just eager to learn and gain more experience, I would be happy to work at whatever magazine would take me.
Dr. Angelou: Here is my home phone number. I want you to call me tonight after 6:30 and I will have some options for you.
Me: (Fighting the urge faint, cry, scream and an array of other wholly inappropriate responses) Thank you. You really don’t have to do this. I don’t know what to say.
Dr. Angelou: It’s my pleasure. I’m here to be used, not abused. I’m always happy to help people.
That moment and that response changed my life. I went on to work for Ms. Magazine that summer and joined Kevin as his assistant in the fall. Almost fifteen years later, I’ve done everything from earning a graduate degree at Columbia University to working as a public-school teacher in Durham, North Carolina, to attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania to clerking for a United States District Court judge to working as an attorney in one of the top-ranked labor & employment practice groups in the country. I have benefited equally from hard work and the help of people — like Dr. Angelou — who guided me along the way.
I learned two important principles during that conversation with Dr. Angelou back in spring 2000.
First: Never stop dreaming and don’t be afraid to share your dreams with others. As Dr. Angelou aptly observed, “[a] friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.”
Second: To borrow again from Dr. Angelou, allow yourself to be used by investing in the dreams of others. I hope to honor Dr. Angelou’s generosity and celebrate her life by teaching and giving to others as they search for their place in this world. Simply put, “[w]hen you learn, teach. When you get, give.”