‘Maya Angelou chose to love me,’ Tavis Smiley said of his friend

‘Maya Angelou chose to love me,’ Tavis Smiley said of his friend
April 16
00:00 2015
(Above left: Tavis Smiley photo by  Erin Mizelle for The Chronicle)

Author, broadcaster and publisher Tavis Smiley encouraged residents to find their path by walking it themselves as he spoke to more than 100 people Thursday night who packed the auditorium of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) to talk about his personal journey with the late Dr. Maya Angelou, chronicled in his book “My Journey with Maya.”

“I remember when she died. I remember looking out of the hotel window in New York and just wanting everything to just stop,” he told the crowd of the woman he thought of as a mother figure. “We are who we are because somebody loved us. I am who I am in part because Maya Angelou chose to love me.”

Smiley is the author of 16 books, the host of Tavis Smiley on PBS, The Tavis Smiley Show and Smiley & West from Public Radio International, and the daily radio show, Tavis Talks, on the Tavis Smiley Network.

He is the founder of the Tavis Smiley Foundation that focuses on promoting young leaders through workshops and conferences.

The event was designed to celebrate Angelou, who died on May 28, 2014. She would have had a birthday on April 4, and both Smiley’s book and a stamp commemorating her from the United States Post Office were released on April 7.

“That’s a wonderful tribute to her. On one day there’s a book out that’s a tribute to you and a postage stamp that people are rushing to get copies off. She’s going to be regarded and remembered for years to come as the greatest Renaissance woman in America,” he said. “I don’t know another woman who did all of the things she did, and did them all well. She is the quintessential example of a Renaissance woman. In the months and years to come she’ll be remembered as such.”

The book is a memoir that chronicles his 25-year friendship with the late Angelou that began when Smiley was just 21 years old and accompanied her in Africa after a devastating blow to his then budding political career.

“When I met her briefly at the age of 21 while presenting her with a proclamation from the Mayor of Los Angeles, Mayor Bradley, her presence was so powerful and meeting her was so poignant that even for those few minutes that I committed to myself that at some point I would get to spend some time with her,” he said. “In Africa is where our friendship began to blossom.”

In the book, Smiley struggles with feeling like he deserves the friendship of Angelou. He said that he still doesn’t know what he could’ve done to deserve her friendship.

“I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know almost 30 years later, what I did to deserve being in her space,” he said. “She opened her head, heart and home to me. I don’t know what I did to deserve that but it is clearly one of the seminole, defining relationships in my life.”

Smiley wouldn’t hear  from Angelou again until he was fired from Black Entertainment Television. She called to uplift him and encouraged him to write a thank you letter thanking Bob Johnson for the opportunity that he gave him. He said he doesn’t think he would have gone as far as he did without the firing, something Angelou knew would happen.

“My grandfather use to tell me all the time, you can’t see the whole parade if you’re on the float. I was in that one space and I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I didn’t know what else was out there for me to claim. So it just stunned me when she said that. Who knew that the decision would have been one of the best decisions of my life,” he said.  “Sometimes in life you have to push and sometimes you have to jump, but you cannot stand still. If you are going to advance, grow or mature, you have to move. She said that this would be a blessing down the road and she was right about that.”

From that point on they would talk regularly.

Smiley said that he and Angelou disagreed on a number of things including the use of the N-word, the nomination of Clarence Thomas and even the presidential run of now-president Barack Obama. That issue is addressed in the book as well.

Smiley took national criticism for applying what some viewed as “unnecessary pressure” on the candidate about his plans for Black America when elected. At one point, Maya Angelou called to tell him to lay off, according to the book. He said that the call didn’t bother him at all.

“Maya Angelou never did or said anything to offend me. I knew that she loved me and cared for me, so getting a phone call and getting a critique by Maya wasn’t like reading cyber hate on the Internet,” he said. “I don’t believe that there’s anything that we ever have to say to another human being that we cannot find a way to say in love. I wasn’t offended by her phone call or conversation and she wasn’t offended by my push back.”

Smiley maintains that while he loves Obama, and voted for him, he doesn’t think that his critics understood that he loves African-Americans more. Enough to ask the tough the questions.

“My job has always been to raise these critical questions and issues that advance a conversation about how to do better by us. The election was the beginning but how now do you take that symbolism and turn it into substance,” he said. “What are the demands that we have to put on the table of this president, or any president, to do better by black people? Once we had that conversation and I explained that to her (Maya), the conversation ended as every conversation did, on a love note.”

Bookmarks Executive Director Ginger Hendricks said that the agency was thrilled to host Smiley on the book tour.

“It was amazing that he was featured on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart on Wednesday night and then was at SECCA in Winston-Salem on Thursday night. Even though the visit was bittersweet (as he talked about in his presentation, it was his first visit to Winston-Salem since Dr. Angelou’s death), it was extremely interesting to hear his stories of his time with Dr. Angelou. Some made the audience want to cry; others made us laugh out loud,” she said. “I now feel like I have a better understanding of this amazing woman who took the time to mentor Tavis for 28 years, beginning in his early twenties, when he needed it most.”

Smiley has recently announced that the book would be turned into a Broadway play.

“I’m humbled that Kenny Leon would have read the book, been completely enthralled by it and for him to want to do the play is a huge honor,” he said. “I don’t have a language to explain how it feels. I can see it as a play but how Kenny pulls it together, who writes it or who plays whom is beyond me.”

Smiley said that it’s important for the book to have been published because it takes Angelou’s fans inside her world.

“For all those people, who have adored her and wondered what it would have been like to get to know her. I want this book of my 28-year relationship with her to escort people into her space, her world, to see what it was like to be mentored by her, counseled and advised by her as a young man who is trying to find his way in this world.”

When asked by The Chronicle which one he believed was the greatest — love or courage — Smiley laughs and with a smile in his voice, sticks to his original choice of love. The debate was a regular between Angelou and Smiley and plays out in the book. He said that the joy of the debate was to go back and forth with this iconic thinker despite never  agreeing.

“I’m still with love and I can hear Maya speaking from heaven saying ‘I’m still with courage.’ Her assessment was that it takes courage to love and my response is that I’ve never acted courageously on behalf of, in defense of or because of anything that I didn’t have an abiding love for. I suspect that if she was still here today, we would still be having that conversation.”

Signed copies of Smiley’s books are available at Bookmarks. For more information about author visits or to purchase signed books, visit or call 336-747-1471.

About Author

Chanel Davis

Chanel Davis

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