The passing on Wednesday, May 28, of world-renowned poet, novelist and activist Maya Angelou has been a major news and social media topic.
Here in the St. Louis area, where Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, as Marguerite Johnson before moving away to Stamps, Ark., at an early age, she leaves behind her “brother in spirit,” East St. Louis-born poet and scholar, Eugene Redmond.
Redmond is known as the Poet Laureate of East St. Louis, and his own literary accomplishments include seven volumes of poetry, as well as his groundbreaking 1976 work, “Drumvoices: The Mission of African-American Poetry, A Critical History.” He first met Angelou nearly half a century ago.
And in 1970, Redmond and Angelou pledged to become spiritual brother and sister, and developed a deep friendship that carried through more than four more decades.
“Angela and I saw each other intermittently during the 1960s at events like rallies, meetings and readings,” Redmond said during a telephone conversation from his Illinois home Wednesday afternoon. “But it wasn’t until 1970 that she told me, ‘Eugene, be my brother forever.’ And we’ve been like brother and sister ever since.
“We became fast friends because we had a common cultural matrix — both having roots here in the St. Louis area. And although she moved away, St. Louis has always remained part of her — and of her writing.”
Redmond had been in touch with Angelou by phone several times recently and knew she had been in the hospital “a bit more frequently” in the past few months. But he was already planning a visit to Angelou this summer in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she has made her home for many years.
Every summer, I go down to Winston-Salem to visit with her for a couple weeks,” Redmond said. “She would let me stay at one of her houses and I would write, and we would get together for lunch or dinner. So last summer was the last time we were together. This would have been the 14th summer in a row I would have been there.”
According to Redmond, he and Angelou had a common thread in their writing — especially their poetry.
“She always told me she liked the rhythm in my work, and I admired the musicality and rhythmical way she wrote as well,” he said. “Her words just skip along the page. She was both a singer and a dancer at one time in her life, and I know that had an influence on her writing. Maya was a true renaissance woman — and one who was very much self-taught by her experience in life.”
In terms of Angelou’s literary accomplishments, Redmond believes her work will continue to be read and admired.
“I think there are several things that will keep her writing alive for future generations,” Redmond said. “One, she wrote the truth — and with a directness that is rare. And there’s also deep wisdom in her work as well. She was an observer of life at a very profound level. And she was able to communicate those truths and that wisdom in a way that connected with people — and that will continue to do so.”