Tuesday, June 10, 2014

After reading of Maya Angelou’s death, I was reminded of an experience I had with her, which I wrote about back in November of 2007. It was just a small moment in time, but it was very big to me. I admired her so very much and was always so impressed and moved by her life and her work….. Here is the post, below, very much edited, corrected and re-written…..I was writing about this show I had seen on the Sundance Channel called The Iconoclasts…It brought up some other memories for me, too, about Ruby Dee and my dear friend----actress and producer Rosetta LeNoire.  And another amazing woman, the Artist, Samella Lewis…..At the time, Rosetta was the only one of those four women  no longer alive……and now, the extraordinary Maya Angelou is gone, too…….These women of color were all pioneers and lived through incredible times in the history of our country….They were great teachers, in their way…..I am grateful that they all touched my life……... 


The Sundance Channel has this really wonderful series called "Iconoclasts"...where they pair up two people who often don't know each other in 'life' though they are certainly familiar with each other by reputation....And they meet and spend time with one another talking about all sorts of things regarding their life experience and their work, as well..... It is a fascinating, informative and often moving 50 minutes or so The ones that have interested me the most have to do with two people who's lives have more in common than not, though the threads of that commonality may appear to be somewhat obscure. The two that stand out for me are Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou----the first of these pairings that I saw, and the most recent one which played on Friday night, Alicia Keys and Ruby Dee....It is obvious in a way that the disparity of age is an important factor....in each case, there is an 'elder' and there is a 'younger'.

The conversations that Dave Chappelle had with Maya Angelou were just fabulous. Her life experience as a black woman in America in contrast to his experience as a young man of color, decades later, were quite illuminating and wonderful...The respect that they have for one another----the things that they both admire in each other, well....it was a very informative meeting of people, not just for each other, but for the audience, too.....

A stunning meeting, one might say, and ultimately, a very moving experience to watch......... 

Then the second episode that I found extremely meaningful was the time that Ruby Dee and Alicia Keys spent together.....It was so sweet and so filled with the exchange that two 'artists' can have with each other.... so much respect for one another...I found it deeply touching. In this program, they each took the other to the place where they started their growth as artists....Ruby Dee to the actual Theatre where she got her start as an actress, in Harlem, and Alicia Keys took 'Miss Dee', as she called her throughout the program, to Hell's Kitchen where she grew up and to the theatre there where she got her start....

They shared poetry and songs and history and their talent.... Both these particular programs had a theme in common. Both Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee lived through incredibly historic times in the struggle for Civil Rights. Both knew Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, very very well.....this history, these important milestones of the struggle for 'change' are part of what made both these women who they are today. The 'youngers' get to hear this history and 'feel' it right from someone who lived it....How special is that?

To me, it is everything. Here we have extremely talented and successful people getting together and sharing life experiences with one another and we as an audience have the privilege of peeking in on this sharing....This series is a truly spectacular idea of the amazingly talented Robert Redford, and it comes off like gangbusters.

Watching Ruby Dee, I was reminded of a couple things... My introduction to Langston Hughes' poetry. It was sometime in the mid 1950's, I think, while watching a wonderful series on CBS, (Maybe), called Camera Three.....

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis spent the whole half hour reciting, in a very artful way, all this wonderful poetry by a number of black writers....it was, actually, my introduction to many writers I was unfamiliar with, and also my introduction to a side of these two wonderful actors that I had not seen before---

Their love of and their commitment to writers of color, and the sharing of same to a mostly white audience who like me, had probably never heard of any of them till that morning.
It was a revelation for me, and opened up a whole new world

About 35 or so years later, I went to a book signing, with my dear dear old friend, (above) Rosetta LeNoire, whom I had met back in 1954---The New York days-----This book signing was held here in Los Angeles and it was a big terrific party. The book is "IN THE SHADOW OF THE GREAT WHITE WAY" - Images from the Black Theatre". This great book features the magnificent photographs of Bert Andrews. Images which he took in and around the greater New York area of a certain period of all the Black Theatre that was happening at the time.....

The story of how this book came about is pretty miraculous in and of itself. Due to a horrendous fire in 1985, the building that housed Bert Andrews Studio in New York City on the corner of 8th Avenue and 46th street was destroyed and with it went 40,000 to 50,000 images and negatives. A devastating loss to say the least.... But because of that devastating fire, Bert Andrews went to all the theatres were he had photographed plays, actors, playwrights and directors---the Negro Ensemble Theatre Company, the New Federal Theatre, the Frank Silvera Workshop, the Richard Allen Cultural Center, etc.---to see what each of them might still have of the photographs he had taken over those years. He was able to retrieve almost 2000 prints from The Negro Ensemble Theatre, alone---and many from all the other theatres, too. And in so doing, a history of black theatre and all the great great artists who had worked in plays at those theatres during that time---1957 to 1984, were saved and preserved and now reside in a special place in The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in The New York Public Library, at Lenox Avenue and 135th Street...Not far from where Ruby Dee got her start as an actress. This book signing was a joyous joyous evening...so very many actors, playwrights, directors, etc, who are in the 150 or more pictures included in the book were there. The feeling in the room was unlike any other event that I have ever been to, before or since, of this nature....There was so much love and camaraderie in that room---I was utterly thrilled to be there and to be among 'artists' who I admired so greatly. I got to talk to Ruby Dee and she signed my book along with many other special people.... 

And I also thought about my slight connection to Maya Angelou, too....

In 1994 I was invited to a very special book signing by another very dear friend above, Samella Lewis, an artist and Art Historian as well as one of the bravest and smartest women I have ever known. This book was a "special limited edition" of a true work of art---A book of poems by Maya Angelou called "OUR GRANDMOTHERS" with exquisite black and white very complex beautiful illustrations by the incredibly talented black artist, John T. Biggers....It is an over sized book---22" X 17", with a beautiful cloth binding and it sits in it's own protective box, which is just big enough to hold the book..... 
There were only 400 books printed in this Limited Edition....Samella had invited about 50 or so people to her home and Maya Angelou was to be there signing the books in this edition as well as another published edition without the illustrations, etc, which was just a regular sized book of the same poetry.... It turned out that there were only a very small amount of the "Special Edition" at Samella's house that day, and when they ran out, there would be no more available for signing---at least not there. When it came time for the actual signing---Dr. Angelou arrived and spoke to us as a group for a short time----Then, Dr. Angelou took her position behind a large table, big enough to hold this huge heavy book, where she would be signing.

Everyone formed a line and I was about halfway back in the line...And this edition was quite expensive because, indeed, you were buying a work of art....! I didn't know if I would be lucky enough to get one, but I hoped I would. Maya Angelou took a lot of time with each person who bought a book---whether the special edition or the regular edition.....

I was so impressed with her complete total interest in whomever sat down next to her...It was awesome! As I got closer and closer, I could see the small pile of these special editions dwindling before my eyes....But, as luck would have it, I got the very last one and I believe there were only ten of these "special" editions all together.

At my turn, Maya Angelou greeted me and said to sit down and then proceeded to talk to me as if I was the only person in the room, just as she had with everyone else. Interested in what I did and how I knew Samella, etc....I realized later---much much later, that when I said my name was Naomi Caryl, she took that to mean that this was my first name, like Carol Ann, or Joanie Sue, and so when she signed the book, she wrote, 'Naomi Caryl' Joy! and signed her name and the date, 9/11/94.

This was a very wonderful afternoon for me for so very many reasons, not the least of which was and is, my deep admiration for this great great artist. I do feel incredibly lucky to have met and/or known so very many inspiring people throughout my life.....these women---just to name a few---Ruby Dee, Maya Angelou, Rosetta LeNoire, Samella Lewis....all have been inspiring to me on many many levels....these four women growing up in a very openly racist time in our country, achieved so much with such odds against them that one cannot even imagine....three are still alive, Bless them, and one, Rosetta, has left us---(as of this writing, now Dr. Angelou is gone too)....But all of them are fantastic role models of a life well lived in spite of adversity's that are unimaginable....So do watch ICONOCLASTS, if it is still being shown---or find it on YouTube----and see what grace and wisdom and talent that Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou possess. It touches me more than I can say.......

More To Come.........

Note: Thursday, June 12th:  I just heard that the wonderful Ruby Dee, died yesterday, at 91. Rest Well, dear talented Ms. Dee.....
I've lost another dear dear old friend----
 Mitzie Welch, who died on Tuesday......another Heartbreaking loss for me.....my heart goes out to Kenny, Julie, and Gillian.........Mitzie was a truly special and fantastically talented person.....We were one month apart in age---I am one month older......She is the person who said to me when we were 29...."It's all over when we turn 30, Nay.....".
How wonderfully wrong she was....
For darling Mitzie, it was all over on Tuesday, June 10th, just about 6 weeks before her 83rd Birthday.
I'll miss you with all my heart, my dear dear friend.........

Blogger Lee
had this to say:

A wonderful post. I love reading your most interesting stories, Naomi. They are terrific.

The first time I saw Ruby Dee was in the movie "A Raisin in the Sun"...that was such a break-out performance and movie at the time. Unforgettable...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. :)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 at 2:29:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Degrees of separation! A wonderful post. I was sad to hear of Maya Angelou's passing -- I admired her in every way possible as a beautiful, gracious, courageous woman. Your book is a treasure.

Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 5:51:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Such a wonderful post! You really should write a book, Naomi.

I can't imagine losing so many friends - my heart goes out to you.

Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 11:21:00 PM PDT 

had this to say:

When I was reading the post, I was thinking how Ruby Dee just passed away - what timing! And then I saw your update at the end. A wonderful tribute to these wonderful women.

And now I'll always think of you as Naomi Caryl Joy!

Friday, June 13, 2014 at 10:25:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

you already know how i loved Maya and Ruby Dee and Ossie were fantastic!

I am so sorry to hear of the loss of yet another of your friends, Mitzie...xoxoxoxox...

Friday, June 13, 2014 at 2:04:00 PM PDT 

had this to say:

That was very interesting and how great that you met her. I read her memoirs back before we got this farm, back in the years where libraries were feasible for me. I loved those books as they were so real.

Sunday, June 15, 2014 at 5:27:00 PM PDT 

had this to say:

Now I want to see that show. I feel happy that those photos were preserved and that you got the book ... the last one! I enjoyed reading every bit of this. You might remember, I just heard Nikki Giovanni read and she told a story about her friend Maya Angelou. It was about their competitiveness with cooking and how she traveled to NC where Maya lived and made a big meal for her. She wasn't surprised when Maya died (I read her response in the local papers) because she was in poor health but she didn't let on much about it. Maya Angelou spoke at Radford University (about 35 minutes from Floyd). I regret I never went, just missed some opportunities over the years because I don't have the energy for it all. xo

Monday, June 16, 2014 at 9:08:00 PM PDT 

had this to say:

Really a wonderful post, Naomi!
I agree with your friend Riot, you really should write a book!

I am so very sorry to hear that you loss another dear friend... So very sad...
Sending you many hugs and much love.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 8:02:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Wow! Great remembrance. Maya was truly one of a kind. I imagine that you must be, too.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 3:20:00 PM PDT 

Blogger Pat
had this to say:

You were so lucky to have known these marvellous, inspiring women - one can only imagine what they had to endure back in the bad old days.
They were true survivors who leave the world a better place than they found it.
And they were so lucky to have known you.
Iconoclasts sounds like the sort of programme we would welcome over here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014 at 7:53:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Naomi, you need to write a book. The people and places you've known, the times you lived through. You have such a gift for making everything come alive on the page. I hadn't heard of Iconoclasts before, I'll have to see if I can see it on-line. I am prepping another new class this summer, to be taught in the Fall. It will cover political activism and the resulting legislation of the 1960s. I will be covering the Civil Rights Movement along with three others. Anything you can recommend would be appreciated. Thank you also for your kind words regarding my mother.

Friday, June 20, 2014 at 5:41:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Sorry I am so late getting here, Naomi. I mourn the loss of both Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou, and I envy your connections to them, however small they were. I remember Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee on TV in the 50's and 60's. They were magic; together or alone. We have lost so many "greats" and they are certainly on that list.

Friday, June 20, 2014 at 11:55:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Hi Naomi,

I just checked to see if my comment on your last post was here, and it is, so I just missed this one. It didn't show up in my reader. I'm having real issues with Blogger at the moment.

This was a fascinating post, you've been so blessed to meet so many fascinating people during your life. And I was so pleased that you got the last limited edition book by Maya Angelou. She didn't mean so much here in the UK and really I probably only knew her from her famous quotes but she sounds like a very special woman. Another sad loss.

Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 12:05:00 AM PDT 

had this to say:

Love your posts. My God, the people you have met. You too are a treasure by having been near them. Again, thank you for sharing--I know it is not easy.

Monday, June 23, 2014 at 6:42:00 PM PDT 

had this to say:

Another beautiful, informative post... You are just as important special and talented as these lovely people you write about...truly a charmed life...
Have a glorious summer up in your house in the hills...

Xx cynthia

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 at 6:23:00 AM PDT 

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