‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’

 

I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Sad news from Afghanistan

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 9.21.02 AMWe lost another amazing journalist today.

Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an acclaimed photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly after an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan, the AP said. Correspondent Kathy Gannon was wounded and is in stable condition in hospital.

“Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss,” said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll.

Two days ago, Niedringhaus had tweeted about a tribute to another journalist, Sardar Ahmed, who was killed March 21 in the attack on the Serena Hotel.

I did not know Niedringhaus, though I am familiar with her incredible body of work. But I can imagine what kind of woman she was. Her fortitude. Her courage. Her convictions.

Just yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the University of Georgia about reporting on trauma. There was some discussion there about journalists in conflict zones. One student asked me how journalists deal with fear.

I did not have a good answer for her because the fear never goes away. It’s a matter of not dwelling on it and getting on with your work. But then, when news of tragedy comes, like today’s from Afghanistan, it’s difficult to remain composed.

Here’s to all my colleagues working at this very moment in places near and far where they are in harm’s way. They make me proud of my profession.

Death: I’ve had 13 years to think

The most sacred cremation place in India: Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night.

A body lies on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night. Concepts of death are very different in many Indian communities.

I’ve been immersed in writing about death after spending a week in Varanasi at a home where ailing, elderly Hindus go to end their lives. They want to die there because they believe dying within the boundaries of the ancient city of Kashi will mean moksha, or salvation for the soul.

The story — I will write more about that later — took me back to the deaths of my own parents in 2001. I cremated my father, Debabrata Basu, 13 years ago.

Every year, especially on March 24, I think about the events of that day. Of bringing his body home to our flat in Kolkata. Of going to Park Circus Market to buy garlands of marigolds and bouquets of white, fragrant Rajanigandhas (tuber roses). Of all the people who came to pay their last respects. Family. Friends. My father’s students and colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I think of how summer had already cut spring short that year. The temperature soared beyond 90 degrees as we made our way to the crematorium in Kalighat. I waited with my father’s body, under a hot sun. I felt exposed to the entire world, for seven hours. Time stood still then. I looked down at his gaunt face, his cold body. I touched his hand from time to time. Was it to make sure he really was gone? Physically, he was.

But his soul was free. He would be with me always, I thought.

I also lost a dear friend recently. Lateef Mungin, a colleague at CNN and before that, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died after suffering seizures. He was only 41.

I attended ‘Teef’s funeral at an African-American Baptist church in suburban Atlanta. Everything about it was so decidedly different than what I had seen at the cremation grounds in Kolkata and most recently in Varanasi. The way a body is laid out. They way we honor a person. They way we say goodbye.

In the last few days, death has again entered my life with the story of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. I spoke with Mr. K.S. Narendran, whose wife. Chandrika Sharma, was on that flight. This is what he wrote to his friends last week:

I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere. I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present to keep the drama ever moving. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

(You can read the entire story on CNN.)

I admired Mr. Narendran’s quiet strength and how he coped with the knowledge that his wife may never come back home. It was a stark contrast to the way many of us display our anxiety and grief.

We all have to come to terms with dying. We will all die one day. That is certain. But there is so much uncertainty about what happens afterwards, about what we believe happens to us after our physical presence on Earth has ended.

Do you believe in heaven? In hell? Do you believe we possess souls?

Hindus believe in rebirth. They see it as another cycle of testing for one’s soul. That’s why people go to Benaras to die. That’s why they take God’s name and hope for moksha that will put an end to that undesirable cycle. It is an alien idea for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But who’s to say?

I am not sure I will ever come to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this. I feel my parents’ presence within me. And that will never go away.

Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.

Rena

rena golden

Rena Golden

Hasan Zeya used to boast about how he was still practicing medicine into his early 80s. But at 84, he no longer is happy about his age. His daughter, Rena, passed away last week, days shy of her 52nd birthday.

“She did a bad thing. She cut ahead of me in the queue,” he tells me at her funeral Sunday.

Tears well in his eyes, though he keeps a brave front among the hundreds of people who have come to pay tribute to Rena. The weather, dreary and wet, matches the mood inside the inside Temple Kol Emeth.

Rena’s memorial was exactly how it should have been. A rabbi and grieving husband spoke of her incredible talent, compassion and ability to inspire. They spoke of a daughter, a wife, a mother, who gave her all to her family.

Rena worked for many years at CNN, a majority of her time spent as a leader at CNN International. The temple was filled with journalists who stood in awe of her.

Watch a birthday message from Dr. Zeya to Rena  on her birthday last year:

Dr. Zeya tells me how his own father had been a journalist in India but discouraged his son from ever becoming one. It was hard work and no money. But maybe that’s where Rena got her passion.

As a little girl, Rena would make her parents watch as she pretended to be a news anchor. She would hide under the table and appear from behind the tablecloth to the deliver the news.

Rena came to America on her sixth birthday. Dr. Zeya had wanted a better life for his family and moved to North Carolina from a remote part of the Indian state of Bihar. His family hailed from the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience campaign in India — there’s a scene in the Oscar winning film that shows Gandhi arriving at that train station.

Dr. Zeya tells me he was happy to leave what he called the “most backward place in India.” For a variety of reasons.

He tells me he loved that in Chapel Hill, he could shower with hot water spewing from the faucets. And that he did not have to sweat through the entire summer like we did in India when the electricity went out and the fans stopped for hours. I felt connected with him — and to Rena — in a whole different way.

I never really spoke with Rena much about her early childhood in India. My connections to our homeland, of course, were much stronger since my parents chose to return there many years ago. But in a strange sort of way, it was comforting to know now that Rena had experienced life as I had there. She was only a year and half older than me.

My deepest connection to Rena was that when I first met her more than 20 years ago, she was the only other Indian woman I knew in mainstream journalism in the United States. Now, of course, there are many successful South Asian women practicing great journalism. But back then, there were few. Rena knew that and encouraged women like me to keep pushing forward.

As I speak with her father, I realize where she got a lot of her spunk, though he insists that it was she who inspired him.

Dr. Zeya tells me he never wanted to color his children’s thoughts about big things in life. Like religion. He wanted Rena to make up her own mind. It was exactly how my father had raised my brother and me. He never allowed organized religion to infiltrate our home. He wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.

Sunday afternoon, Dr. Zeya sat in the temple to hear Rabbi Steven Lebow tell the audience what Rena had said to him when it became apparent she was going to die.

She told him she didn’t fear death — she never had in her painful two-year battle against lymphoma. She worried only about what would happen to her children, Sabrina and Adam, and to the love of her life, her husband, Rob Golden.

She also told Rabbi Lebow that she wasn’t religious, though she considered herself deeply spiritual. It was a statement that made her father proud.

We spoke of religious tensions in India. Dr. Zeya sipped Sprite and launched a conversation on Islam. He believes followers of that faith must rethink their path to the future. It was not a discussion I’d expected to have at Rena’s funeral and at first, I was caught by surprise.

But on the long drive back home on 1-75, I decided otherwise. My conversation with Dr. Zeya was exactly what Rena would have wanted. Smart, forward-thinking, outside-the-box, provocative, even, and totally unexpected at a funeral. She would have liked that her father initiated an intelligent conversation with her friends and colleagues.

The rain came down harder. It was as though the entire world was mourning the loss of Rena Shaheen Zeya Golden.

A New Year’s salute to amazing people not on any lists

Zhanna

I met Zhanna Dawson at her Atlanta home in April.

Today, we bid goodbye to 2012 and usher in a new year. It’s a time of cheer and remembrance.

We like lists. So we have the top 10s of everything from movies to gadgets to events. And there are lists of admirable people. Barack Obama was Time’s Man of the Year. Malala  Yousafzai topped other lists. As did Mohamed Morsy, the Egyptian president and Olympians who set records and won medals last summer in London.

Then there are all those people who perhaps made the news in remarkable moments and then faded to the background again. Their names are not on any Top 10 lists though it’s likely they went on in their acts of courage, brilliance and altruism.

There are countless people, of course, who deserve recognition. I am naming a few who I had the opportunity to write about in the last 12 months.

Dr. Kasem kept the Hippocratic Oath at a makeshift hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Al Quasyr. He knew every patient could be his last; that at any minute, a rocket could slam into the building at any moment. Instead, he kept moving the hospital from building to building and held steadfast to the medical oath he took that demands that he do all he can to save lives.

“If I will die when I help people, it is good for me,” he told CNN many months ago. “Because I am a doctor. I must help people, especially in this very catastrophic time. After the revolution, before the revolution, during the revolution, I will help people.”

I don’t have any way of knowing where Dr. Kasem is today. Whether he is even alive.

Back in February, I wrote about how the Tibetan New Year, Losar, was silent and dark in 2012. Tibetans decided to forgo festivities to honor all the monks and nuns who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese rule. Think about what that takes — to set yourself afire because of your love for homeland.

In the West, we seldom hear about what Chinese occupation is doing to Tibet, how an entire culture is eroding.

And I salute survivors of tragedy and trauma everywhere who  found ways to carry on living.

In 2012, I was lucky to have met Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson, who survived the Holocaust in her native Ukraine by playing the piano for the Nazis.

She is in her mid-80s now, yet I was so taken by her verve for life. I could not stop listening to a recording of her playing Chopin. I could not stop hearing her stories of the war — how she felt when she played for survivors of Auschwitz.

She was was a triumph of spirit amid the worst of humanity.

Tonight, I will sip bubbly and make resolutions for the new year. And I will celebrate the lives of extraordinary people I have met and hope that their achievements always serve as a guide for my own aspirations.