In the early 1990’s I was fresh out of college and a struggling filmmaker. In fact, filmmaking was only a dream. I wasn’t making a living doing “my art.” I had only completed one short film as a student at Ithaca College, but it wasn’t winning awards. I was oft times working as a substitute teacher for the Baltimore City School System. I was in a rut and had no direction.
I was receiving some pressure to find a “real job” and stable work. So, at the time, I thought perhaps I should quit and become a teacher or a government employee. There’s always work at the post office.
Then I saw a posting announcing that Maya Angelou was speaking at Johns Hopkins University. I knew I had to be there. Something inside me said I had to be in that room.
I had read the works of Dr. Maya Angelou growing up in Baltimore. I am certain that my paternal grandmother introduced and encouraged me to read “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” at a young age. I knew about her history and living in Africa, marching with Dr. King, and being friends with Malcolm X. Before there was the Internet, there was my grandmother who knew everything about everybody, from reading books and magazines.
I knew I needed to be at that speech. This was a woman, who had young black girls knowing they were “phenomenal.” I am certain most learned that word from her poem. But even more than that, via her work, she also encourage young black boys to grow up and be men and to treat women properly. Her words inspired an entire people. She taught us to “rise.” When I write emails, I often say, “keep rising,” which is a riff off of her work.
I sat in that auditorium on the edge of my seat. I waited with anticipation as she approached the podium. She was tall. She was funny. She was dynamic. She danced. And, her voice… Her voice was so distinctive – expressive – distinguished. She was eloquent and entertaining. She spoke of fulfilling your dreams and living a life with no regrets. This was the message I needed and the timing was perfect.
She was everything you could imagine Dr. Maya Angelou would be, inspirational and sensational. As she enunciated each syllable, my soul filled up. I felt like I had entered a church for the first time and she was this new exciting pastor. When she completed her speech, I stood with the rest of the audience and applauded. I was touched and the message was clear.
Then came the Q&A.
During the course of that speech, I was emboldened to continue my path as a filmmaker. I wanted to let Dr. Angelou know that her words had reached me. So, I waited in the queue.
When I reached the microphone, I said, “Dr. Angelou, my name is Darryl Wharton. When I came tonight I was at a crossroads and considering giving up my dream as a filmmaker. But after listening to you tonight, I have decided to follow my dream.”
She looked at me with those intense eyes and said, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Then, I said, “Thank you for your speech and I only have one question.”
Then I boldly said, “May I have a hug?”
She smiled broadly and it felt like we were the only two people in the auditorium, and said, “Yes, baby.”
Dr. Angelou turned and gestured towards the stairs. I rushed up to the stage. Approaching her, she was even taller than I had imagined. She opened her arms and embraced me. I could feel the love she transmitted from the depths of her being into me. Her arms were like angel wings, as she whispered, “Yes,” in my ear.
My tank was full and running over. I was being held by living history. She took my hands and looked into my eyes. She gently squeezed my hands and let me go. I was charged and empowered.
Since that time, I cannot imagine what would have happened had I not gone to hear Dr. Angelou speak. It is one decision I have never regretted. I was at the crossroads and needed a push in the right direction. She gave me that and so much more.
My life has had all kind of twists and turns. It has been an adventure; Writing for two nationally syndicated television shows, writing and directing an award-winning feature film, writing and directing plays, directing a feature film in Japan are only a minute part of the story that also includes earning my MFA in the craft I love. I even taught at a university. The fact that I am writing this essay from my home in Japan is part and parcel because of that day.
I am neither rich nor famous, but my life has been remarkable. That day I learned that life really is too short and we have to live our lives on our own terms. We only get one shot at life, and now, when I look back on my own life, I cannot complain, because I was cloaked in the strength of a woman who lived her life on a higher frequency than most can imagine.
So, when I learned of the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou, my heart sank. She was more than a civil rights activist, writer, poet, professor, singer, or dancer… She was bigger than all of those labels. Universities and presidents have lauded her. Her work has inspired millions. In the words, of Rudyard Kipling, she could “walk with kings and not lose the common touch.”
Although our paths only crossed once, it changed the course of my life. We lost a great human being who worked to help make the world, and us all better.
And on one balmy night, she literally saved my career.
Dr. Maya Angelou, may you rest in peace and thank you from the bottom of my heart. And, I promise, I will keep rising.