By Cassiette West-Williams
Special to the NNPA
The news of Maya Angelou’s death brought a very poignant memory back to my college days, when I was eight hours away from home, and felt very much alone.
When my scholarship letter arrived in the mail, I was filled with pride and excitement. I was finally going to attend Mizzou, better known as the University of Missouri-Columbia, and start my training as a “real” journalist. It was 1986 and I could not wait to learn the tricks of the trade. Oh, was I in for a rude, cultural awaking. This inner city girl was not prepared to live in a southern, Confederate-flag-waving, small town in the middle of the state.
It is one thing to read about the Ku Klux Klan in a history book. It’s another thing to live next door to the daughter of the Grand Wizard and down the hall from the grandchildren of KKK members. That did not describe everyone, but there were enough descendants of the Klan there for us to feel their presence on campus, in class, and in the city.
I was consumed with grief as I cried my way through my first campus homecoming festivities. The local community paid Black residents to “dress-up” as slaves in the annual parade and the local people of color collected the money and performed the role of the slave, as if this was normal practice. Weeping regularly, I did not know how I was going to survive in Columbia, Mo., let alone graduate from the university.
My mother, Madeline, did not believe in “wasting money” so returning home without a master’s degree would mean I was a failure in my family. I could not have that, so it was time to dig in and make it happen. I didn’t know how.
My master’s class accepted four Black females into the news program. And of course, we received the last assignments or the stories no one else wanted to cover. When it was announced that Maya Angelou was coming to campus, we couldn’t believe it. Why would someone of her caliber accept an invitation to our institution? She must not know about this place, we thought. But we later learned that she knew all too well.
The day of the assignment we arrived early, only to find scores of reporters, camera crews, and international journalists everywhere. The place was packed beyond capacity and we were positioned all the way in the back of the press section. Insecure and afraid to muscle my way through the crowd, I remained in the background and waited for the press conference to begin. The journalists of color were huddled together to support and comfort each other, as we had never experienced anything quite like this before.
I simply remember Angelou stepping out on stage and surveying the ocean of White press. She spotted us way in the back and asked were we reporters? Someone answered for us, saying we were with the university, just “cub reporters” in training. At that instant, Angelou motioned for us to come forward. What? Is she speaking to us? Through the sneers and eye rolls, we came forward immediately.
Shaking, nervous, and walking uneasily, we obeyed her command to come to the front row. I am no Bible scholar, but there is a phrase in the Word about the last will be first and the first will be last. We were the chosen ones that day. We moved as swiftly as our legs would move, with notebooks and pens ready to write. Mouths that had been as dry as sandpaper were now asking questions and meeting Angelou’s comforting eyes, which melted our fears away.
Maya Angelou’s eyes affirmed our presence. Her commanding and powerful voice calmed our nerves. Her regal authority confirmed that it was indeed our time on campus. Angelou’s kindness gave way for our acceptance as legitimate journalists. I stopped crying and started thinking and moving forward with my life. I stopped questioning whether I had made the right decision to attend Mizzou. Just one person can turn a youth’s life around and that person, in 1988, was Maya Angelou.
I must have rewritten her story a million times in my head, double checking quotes and phrases for accuracy. I wanted every single word to be perfect and portray the woman who gave four, timid, young Black women courage to move forward with our chosen careers. We were given press credentials for the reception and whatever else was taking place after her speech. Just like that, Angelou used her power and prestige to make the American dream happen for some hungry, poverty stricken college students. No longer were we left at the bottom of the assignment pool. The news editors made sure we were given better stories from that day.
That particular newspaper clipping accompanied every packet of stories I sent to prospective employers. A friend of mine recently said to me that he did not know how we made it through those days, but we did. I will always cherish and be grateful for the courage and confirmation that Maya Angelou gave me to fulfill my lifelong dream.
Cassiette West-Williams is now a proud grandmother, an English teacher, and a freelance writer in Chicago.