Honored by National Portrait Gallery, Maya Angelou faces mortality and immortality


Maya Angelou, left, talks with Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, at Angelou's portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Saturday. (Paul Morigi/AP Images For National Portrait)

Maya Angelou has been slowed by age. Tinted shades cover her cataract-laden eyes. She is rolled about in a wheelchair by an assistant. She wears thick socks and no shoes. In a green room, before taking the stage for a weekend appearance in Washington, she takes oxygen to rest and energize her lungs.

“Oh my goodness, do it if you can,” she has said of growing older. “I mean it.”

The woman who became a literary star with the 1969 publication of “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” turned 86 on Friday and celebrated in the District at her favorite restaurant, the Bombay Club, for a dinner hosted by a grandson. The following day, Angelou pondered aging once more as the National Portrait Gallery unveiled a large photo-realistic painting of her that will be included in its collection, an that honor brings her further along the road of artistic immortality.

It is not lost on Angelou, whose striking stage presence and rich voice have not diminished with the ravages of age, that she has received such renown in her lifetime. Her foremothers did not.

The writer Zora Neale Hurston died impoverished. The poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote in her diary of being denied pay for her work.

“I remember when we first started doing this thing called ‘black women writing,’ people looked askance at us,” said Sonia Sanchez, the 79-year-old poet who was part of the collective of prominent black women who traveled to Washington to applaud Angelou, the author of 30 books primarily driven by her personal narrative.

“We gave meaning to literature again [by] asking America to be human,” Sanchez continued.

At a private gathering at the portrait gallery and a reception at the National Museum of African Art, Angelou’s family was joined by Oprah Winfrey, actress Cicely Tyson, former labor secretary Alexis Herman, songwriter Valerie Simpson and others to mark the milestone.

The portrait gallery’s mission is to tell American history through individuals who shaped its culture. Yet only 17 percent of the gallery’s collection is made up of portraits of women; 4 percent depict African Americans, says Kim Sajet, the gallery’s director.

“I was raised by a grandmother, who was the daughter of a former slave. I have a portrait of my grandmother in my home,” Angelou says, reflecting on the significance of her inclusion in the gallery. “It’s an honor for African Americans, of course. Then, it’s an honor for Jews and Arabs, Irish and Italians — all the people who came to America hoping to leave a portrait of themselves for those who are left to come, those who came looking for freedom.”

The portrait, a gift to the Smithsonian by former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, displays Angelou’s features — her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes — against a stark white backdrop. Her silver hair looks as it does now. Her skin has fewer wrinkles and her glasses have been removed. The artist Ross Rossin took from historical photos of Angelou and contemporary ones, merging them to capture what he calls her essence.

Or, as Angelou likes to say, the portrait is the “truth.” “It may not be the facts, but it is the truth.”

In modern times, it is uncouth to raise the question of death. (In 1891, Walt Whitman’s demise was tracked in frequent newspaper updates. “Walt Whitman Slowly Dying,” read a New York Times headline in December 1891. He lived until March 1892.)

Angelou, who often says “let’s be real,” has no qualms when considering what’s to come.

She closed her most recent memoir, which focuses on her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, by writing: “Baxter deserved a daughter who had a good memory.”

“And that’s what I deserve,” Angelou told her friend Winfrey last year. “Remember me.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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