Lisa Page directs the creative writing program at the George Washington University.
By Tavis Smiley with David Ritz
Little, Brown. 214 pp. $24
Before there was Oprah, there was Maya Angelou. Many turned to the writer for her insight, compassion and eloquence after the publication of her first memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Tavis Smiley was one of those people. He met Angelou when he was in his 20s, and over the years he shared his hopes and fears with her and listened to her well-articulated wisdom. As she once told him, “Baby, we find our path by walking it.”
“My Journey With Maya” is his excursion through their relationship, trips taken together, conversations about personal traumas and his travails over building his career. In 1993, Smiley carried Angelou’s bags on a trip to Ghana, a journey lasting no more than 10 days but occupying five chapters of the book. He also refers to Angelou’s memoir “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” describing her experience of Ghana in the 1960s; the history of the country; and conversations about James Baldwin, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois and others. He brings in her inaugural address for President Bill Clinton, seven months before the Ghana trip, and his own failed run for public office in California. Both a tribute and a memoir, the book was written with David Ritz, who last collaborated with Smiley on “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year.”
At first Smiley was intimidated by Angelou, but eventually he opened up to her. He revealed that as a child he was brutally assaulted by his father and described the experience as minor compared with Angelou’s rape as a 7-year-old. Nonetheless, Smiley and his sister were beaten so badly by their father that they had to be hospitalized. Child Protective Services stepped in and placed them both in foster care. Angelou calls Smiley’s beating “one of those upside-down blessings whose manifestation is not known until decades later.”
Her own assailant was murdered after Angelou told her brother about the rape. The murderer was never found. The young Angelou blamed herself for the death and didn’t speak for four years, as she described in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Smiley plays off Angelou’s muteness in telling the story of his own life. “When would I find my voice?” he asks. The answer came quickly in the form of radio work. He did commentary on an AM station until Stevie Wonder heard him and helped get him on an FM channel. From there, he went on to the “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” where he remained for 12 years. He eventually got other broadcast work on BET, PBS and NPR.
Angelou describes her career — singing, dancing, teaching, acting and writing — as well as her forays into social activism. She gently pushes Smiley to be a better interviewer. “Your questions are astute,” she tells him. “They show that you’re prepared. . . . What isn’t quite as good is your ability to listen.”
“My Journey With Maya” has the flavor of a self-help book, much like Smiley’s previous work. The difference here is Angelou’s philosophy. There’s very little new here, but her observations are always sharp. “It isn’t differences of opinion that ruin friendships,” she says. “It’s pride. And what is pride if not a puffed-up sense of self?”
She weighs in as Smiley encounters a series of setbacks. After record mogul Russell Simmons insults Smiley on live television following the death of Tupac Shakur, Angelou tells him, “Processing pain — without perpetuating pain — is rough business.” Five years into his job at BET, Smiley is fired by chief executive Robert Johnson for selling a news segment to a rival network. Angelou’s take on the experience: “Have you sent him a thank you note?”
Angelou’s own life, as depicted here, is serene and uncomplicated. She plies Smiley with a home-cooked meal at her house in North Carolina, a sanctuary filled with a collection of birdcages . She recites poetry from memory and sings hymns. Smiley sits at her knee, absorbing her life lessons. He even watches a rerun of Angelou’s appearance on the late Richard Pryor’s television show, playing a woman married to Pryor’s Willie character.
“Have you stayed in touch with Pryor over the years?” Smiley asks. “Off and on,” Angelou replies. “I’m afraid that scene proved prophetic. Richard really has turned into Willie” — a ne’er-do-well with a weakness for alcohol and drugs.
Occasionally, they disagree. Smiley points out that on the street, “bad” means “good” and the n-word works the same way, but Angelou will have none of that. Smiley thinks Tyler (“Madea”) Perry is déclassé while Angelou finds him entertaining. Their biggest disagreement comes when Smiley criticizes Barack Obama during his run for president in 2008. He devotes a chapter to his problems with Obama, Smiley’s civic responsibility as a public figure and the plight of black America. “Lay off the guy, will you?” Angelou implores.
The book poignantly tracks Angelou’s physical deterioration and Smiley’s distress as he watches his friend lose her sight and her mobility and finally take to a wheelchair. “My Journey With Maya” is a passionate depiction of a true Renaissance woman. One hopes it will lead readers back to Angelou’s many books.