A decade after the Second World War had ended, Irving Burgie and Maya Angelou had set out on a path to fame and public acclaim.
He had just written an off-Broadway play, Ballad For Bimshire, that told the story of a young person on a Barbados plantation, and Angelou had penned I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a book that would later become an American classic, selling tens of millions.
“We were at a session of the Harlem Writers’ Guild in New York and we read from our work,” Burgie, the son of a Bajan mother recalled the other day. “We used to sit, listen and critique each other’s work. It helped us tremendously. Harry Belafonte was involved in it.”
From those days in the mid-1950s until her death in Winston Salem, North Carolina where she lived, wrote and taught at Wake Forest University for more than 30 years, Angelou and Burgie remained firm friends. Last year, he spent a few days at her home in Winston-Salem where “we reminisced about the early chapters of our lives, talked about the progress of Blacks and how things had changed” since then.
“We had a wonderful time,” said Burgie.
That explains why when he received word of her passing at 86 years old, the 90-year old composer, lyricist and writer of the words of Barbados’ national anthem in 1966, shed more than a tear.
“I cried. Her impact on America was significant, so much so that we have tens of thousands of children across the country, indeed around the world, whose parents decided to name them after Maya.
“I have tremendous respect and admiration for the grand lady,” added Burgie whose songs were included on the album Calypso that topped the charts for 32 successive weeks in 1956 and made history by being the first to sell a million copies. Some of those immortal hits included Day-O, and Jamaica Farewell and were followed later by Island In The Sun.
When Burgie wrote his autobiography, Day-O, in 2006, Maya hailed the man and his music.
“He wrote brilliant music and lyrical words that found their way into the hearts of people all over the world,” she said.
And when a documentary about his life was being prepared last year, Maya went before the camera to record some upbeat assessments of his work.
“When I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, she gave a reception in my honour at her lovely New York home in Harlem,” he recalled just before boarding a plane for Winston-Salem to attend Angelou’s funeral service. “The world has lost a great novelist, poet, creative genius and civil rights activist. I have lost a dear and close friend.”
Interestingly, their family trees share a bit of geography: Barbadian and Trinidadian. His mother’s roots were in St George while those of Angelou’s grandfather’s were traced to Trinidad and Tobago. He had left home on a ship and jumped off in Florida.
While Burgie and millions of people mourn her passing, they are also celebrating a glorious life of achievement in the arts, classroom and the stage as evidenced by her 30 best-selling publications; 71 honorary doctorates from many of America’s best known colleges and universities; the recipient of hundreds of awards for literature, acting, teaching and activism.
“Her greatness can also be measured by her civil rights struggles, the fact that she was hailed by presidents, vice presidents and was a close ally of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.; befriended Malcolm X before his assassination, and became a confidante of Nelson Mandela, the first freely elected President of South Africa and was Oprah Winfrey’s mentor tell you much about her,” asserted Burgie.
Eric Holder, whose parents were Bajans, said the death of the literary genius hit his family in a personal way.
“For my family and me, Maya Angelou will always be much more than a great American and an icon in world literature,” said the US Attorney General. “She is the namesake of one of my daughters, who met her as a young girl and celebrated her 21st birthday just one day before the elder Maya left us.”