Food, friends and freedom: Nikki Giovanni remembers Maya Angelou


— I must have met Doc, as we called Maya Angelou, way before I remember.

We often attended readings, but the first time she absolutely caught my attention was at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

It wasn’t all that cold, but Maya and others had fur coats on. My mother, who was a big fan of the Seven Sisters colleges, had come with me. We both had on cloth coats.

Doc, as we all know, was 6 feet or taller. Mommy was 4-foot-11, and I am 5-foot-2. Not only were we shorter, we felt smaller.

I looked at that group and made a silent vow to never allow my mother to be with this group again without a fur coat. We purchased one soon after.

When Mommy died, I shared that story with Doc.

Maya laughed. “We had no idea,” she said. And laughed again. Mommy owes Doc.

When Doc moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she was not far from me in Virginia, so I got to see a lot of her. If I had any inkling she was frying chicken, I’d go down and spend the night. When Jay-Z sent her a case of wonderfully expensive champagne, those days I had to spend the night!

Everyone came to Doc’s place, which was great fun. You’d wake up in the morning not knowing who would be down to breakfast. The superstars; the wonderfully funny; old friends from another country; a congressman. And Doc treated them all the same.

Her ability to speak to everyone in the same voice was what made her the force she was.

Our only disagreements were about food.

She was a great cook, and I think of myself as a good one. We were arguing about rack of lamb, one of my specialties. My recipe comes from the late, great country cook Edna Lewis. I went home after my visit and decided I should not just talk the talk but also walk the walk.

I called my good friend Joanne Gabbin from Furious Flower Poetry Center to have her come with me to Doc’s to cook. Jo is a great cook, too. We got on Doc’s calendar, packed all our ingredients and spices and boogied on down.

Doc sat at the head of the table, where she could see everything going on in the kitchen. She inspected the lamb, checked the veggies, tasted everything and praised Joanne.

I think she loved me a little bit because she, like my only living aunt, always felt free to make minor corrections. “I think the lamb is a bit overdone,” she offered.

“Well Edna Lewis is in heaven, and I checked with her before I put this on the table,” I responded.

We both laughed. I know if the lamb was not done properly, she would have eaten it and not said a word.

I wanted to fry chicken for her, too, but time just ran out.

Our mutual friend, the late author Alex Haley, always said, “Find the good and praise it.” Maya took it to heart. She would always seek the good in any situation, or she avoided the question.

In all my years of knowing her, I only heard her once speak ill of someone and that was well deserved.

Like everyone, I have read and reread “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” And like that caged bird, Maya sought an inner freedom.

We only have to look at her life to see that she took every ounce of joy life had to offer.

I will remember her as a courageous woman who always wanted to love, and wish her a rightful place in literature.

Nikki Giovanni is a poet, writer, and a professor at Virginia Tech. Her latest work is “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nikki Giovanni.