Maya Angelou and Oprah’s Inspiring Public Friendship

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Dr. Maya Angelou lived an incredible life, with some friendships that were tailor-made for Awesome People Hanging Out Together photos, and one of the most lasting was her connection with Oprah Winfrey. For longtime readers of O Magazine, Angelou was a familiar face: whether it was a pie recipe, an interview, or a poem, Oprah used her magazine to remind readers of Angelou’s insight and wisdom, at all points in her journey. She had a great perspective on aging, constantly saying that your 70s and your 80s are “hot.”

Angelou occupied an unique place in the American firmament for someone who was best known as a poet and memoirist (although those were just some of her many talents). She was a public intellectual, and she made an indelible impression on American consciousness, a high point being the poem she read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993:

Yet it may have been the public friendship between Oprah and Angelou that did the most to keep the poet’s life beyond her work in the popular consciousness. There was something very touching about the core of Oprah and Angelou’s friendship. Perhaps it’s the fact that these two extraordinary women overcame staggering difficulties in order to live wild, big lives. When Oprah first read Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she said, “Meeting Maya on those pages was like meeting myself in full. For the first time, as a young black girl, my experience was validated.” To validate someone’s experience, to show them that they’re not alone, to tell them that their life matters even if every other aspect of life says that they’re nothing — that’s why art matters. Oprah and Angelou were clearly kindred spirits, and their connection seemed rooted in that mutual understanding and respect.

They first met in the 1970s, when Oprah was a reporter in Baltimore. After a five-minute interview, they said their goodbyes. But they reconnected in 1984, when Angelou saw Oprah walking down the street in Chicago and said hello. A beautiful friendship took flight (although Hillary vs. Obama was a trying time for the pair; Angelou liked Hillary, Oprah liked Obama).

This affinity shone through the pages of O Magazine whenever the spotlight shone on Angelou — which happened early, and often. In a lengthy interview from 2010, Oprah called her a “mentor-mother-sister-friend,” and Angelou got real with her about numerous topics, including where her confidence came from:

There are so many gifts, so many blessings, so many sources that I can’t say any one thing — unless that one thing is love. By love I don’t mean indulgence. I do not mean sentimentality. And in this instance, I don’t even mean romance. I mean that condition that allowed humans to dream of God. To make it. To imagine golden roads. That condition that allowed the “dumb” to write spirituals and Russian songs and Irish lilts. That is love, and it’s so much larger than anything I can conceive. It may be the element that keeps the stars in the firmament. And that love, and its many ways of coming into my life, has given me a great deal of confidence about life.

When Angelou turned 70, Oprah had “the most fun ever,” renting a cruise ship for the writer and 150 of their closest friends, going to visit the Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico. In an interview from 2013, Oprah asked Angelou what she would say to a younger version of herself, and Angelou replied, “I would encourage her to forgive. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” This year, when Angelou’s portrait was unveiled at the Smithsonian gallery, Oprah shared some of what she learned from Angelou: “to age gracefully, with acceptance and assurance…” and the life-changing, “When people show you — or tell you — who they are, believe them the first time.”

But the greatest lesson was a simple three words from Angelou: “You are enough!” It’s a heady and rich idea, the sort that takes a lifetime to master. The friendship between Angelou and Oprah was one for the ages; it’s been a pleasure seeing the depth of their connection throughout their work, and with Angelou’s death, it will be missed.

[Edited to add] Oprah gave an official statement:

I’ve been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister, and friend since my 20’s. She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her. She won three Grammys, spoke six languages and was the second poet in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. But what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace. I loved her and I know she loved me. I will profoundly miss her. She will always be the rainbow in my clouds.