In 2006, Maya Angelou—poet, playwright, author and more—spoke at Mars Hill College to a full house of 1,500 people. She returns to the small WNC campus April 16, just a few days after marking her 81st birthday (April 4).
Both visits are the result of a friendship.
Nina Pollard was on the faculty of Judson College, a women’s school in Marion, Ala., when she met Angelou 13 years ago. Pollard had the idea of inviting the author to speak at their annual women’s conference, and a lot of community fundraising later, she was chosen to drive 75 miles to the airport to pick up their eminent guest.
“I was high as a kite,” remembers Pollard, though her colleagues warned her not to expect to schmooze. But Angelou immediately opened the door to conversation, remarking: “You know, it doesn’t take long to recognize a soul sister. If we lived closer, we would be getting together on a regular basis for coffee.”
These days, Pollard (who is now vice president for academic and student affairs at Mars Hill), does exactly that—driving over to see Angelou in Winston-Salem, where she’s been the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1981.
“We talk about our beliefs, our struggles with our beliefs, and what’s going on in our lives,” says Pollard. “She’s very, very intuitive and seems to know what’s going on with a person and react to it.”
Pollard cites the time she and her daughter went to see Angelou. The next day, they planned to visit Pollard’s friend of 40 years who was dying in Georgia, though they hadn’t told Angelou. At breakfast, the writer pulled out her latest book and read them a passage about her 40-year friendship with Coretta Scott King and about the civil rights leader’s death.
“I said, ‘Why in the world did you read that?’ And I told her about Nancy.”
Angelou’s answer: “We’re friends—you don’t always have to be told.”
Pollard also emphasizes that what Angelou says in public is “very consistent with who she is.” The Mars Hill administrator remembers watching Angelou open up her jacket to protect a baby from the wind as they stood outside an airport with the child’s mother. And later, says Pollard, Angelou told an audience, “We need to always remember to wrap the mantle of our cloak around young people.”
During Angelou’s 2006 visit to Mars Hill, Pollard recalls, many faculty members required their students to attend her presentation, which could easily have resulted in “a little negativity.” But with 500 students and another 1,000 members of the public present, says Pollard, “We could have heard a pin drop. Maya talked for almost an hour-and-a-half, and there was no shuffling around. Occasionally there was laughter or applause, but the students and others were absolutely mesmerized.
“She has one of the most commanding presences of anyone I have ever seen. It feels as if she has reached out and gathered you individually in.”
Maya Angelou will speak Thursday, April 16, in Mars Hill College’s Moore Auditorium, starting at 7:30 p.m. Seating will be open, and tickets ($35) are still available via the college Web site (www.mhc.edu), or the college bookstore on Main Street in Mars Hill.