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Remembering Maya Angelou

NBC News' Harry Smith Remembers 'Achingly Beautiful' Maya Angelou

Photo of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou circa 1970 Michael Ochs Archives

I was a kid in my 20s when I first interviewed Maya Angelou. She was appearing at an arts center in suburban Denver. I was in radio then and brought my portable recording machine along and we talked. I was hungry to hear what the great writer and activist would have to say about our times, the seventies.

“What happened to ‘the movement’?” I asked.

“Everyone is tired,” she said. I will never forget how she indulged my curiosity and treated me with such respect. I knew I was speaking with a great person and was frankly a little flummoxed by her generosity. I would speak with her many times after that. She was always generous.

Most recently, we went to her home in North Carolina to talk about Nelson Mandela. She was beautifully dressed and as patient as ever while we made adjustments to the lighting and cameras. We spoke for the better part of an hour. Her voice was still strong. Her mind was clear and focused. One of my colleagues said afterward she thought it was a great interview. Maya was great, I acknowledged. Me, I just hit the right chords. With Maya, if you hit the right chords she would soar like a great soloist. Lyrical. Brilliant. Achingly beautiful. Her timing. Her control. We could do nothing but marvel and appreciate.

When Oprah reintroduced Maya to her TV audience, Maya was appreciated in a way that befitted her talent and contributions. Thank you, Oprah. But Maya was sometimes then viewed as a kind of saint. The Maya I knew was lustful and passionate. She’d been a dancer. A singer. A believer in movements and ideas. She was absolutely a performer. Sometimes she’d just break into song. And man, could she laugh. You could feel her laugh in your bones.

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Maya Angelou wrote "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" while the embers of the civil rights movement still smoldered in America’s cities. Her words were so powerful and so true, they touched even the most hardened hearts.

And when she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" during Bill Clinton’s inauguration, those of us who stood along Pennsylvania Avenue that day wept.

Maya Angelou had reason to be bitter. And because her life had indeed been sorrowful, her optimism and belief in the human spirit was that much more inspirational. She inspired us. No doubt.

The morning after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I knew the one person I wanted to hear from was Maya. What she said was poetic. If it had been written down, it would have been published. And might have looked like this.

We have elected a black man.

To talk for us.

To speak for us.

We.

Blacks. Whites. Asians. Spanish speaking. Native Americans.

We have done it.

Fat. Thin. Pretty. Plain. Gay. Straight.

We have done it.

My Lord, I am an American baby.