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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. “That 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka.
Maybe my friends here in America have never heard those names. But in India, they stand synonymous with investigative journalism.
Tehelka has lived up to its name, which means sensation in Hindi, since it entered the Indian media scene in 2000. Early on, the startup almost brought down the Indian government by exposing bribery in defense deals. Tehelka got the story by engineering a videotaped sting operation.
Several years later, in 2007, Tehelka dropped its biggest bomb when it exposed bloody riots in the state of Gujarat not as Hindu backlash but the state-sanctioned killing of Muslims under the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, by the way, is now a prime ministerial contender.
The magazine did not always employ orthodox methods of investigation and came under fire for stretching the limits of the law by using secret cameras and false identities. It defended itself by saying that uncovering the darker side of India would otherwise not be possible.
With Tehelka’s success, Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, skyrocketed to stardom. He was called the rock star of Indian journalism; someone who set a new bar for media standards in the subcontinent. Charismatic. Terribly smart. Curious.
Now, all of it hangs in the balance.
Tejpal admitted “misconduct” against a fellow journalist this week and stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Tehelka for six months to “atone” for his sins. The journalist, according to media reports, is alleging Tejpal sexually assaulted her.
“A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal said.
Some pointed out Tejpal’s language was inappropriate. It was almost as though he were writing about one of his fictional characters.
Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhary’s remarks didn’t go over well, either.
“There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months,” she said.
A statement from the Editors Guild of India said this: “There ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.”
The Tehelka controversy has lit up Twitter and Facebook. That a media institution known for outing the worst of Indian society should be in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal is shocking to many. And Tejpal’s political enemies — he has many — have come out with sharpened knives. Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Tejpal and Chaudhary of “a private treaty” in what he called an attempt to suppress “a clear case of rape.”
Whoa. Let’s give Tejpal his due. We don’t know yet what the truth is here; whether Tejpal is guilty of his accuser’s actions.
I hope that if he is innocent, he will be reinstated and allowed to carry on with his journalistic endeavors, even though I believe his name will now forever be tainted.
But more than anything, I hope there is a fair and exhaustive investigation of what happened. Often in India, that does not happen.
And I hope that Tehelka will help lead the way in that effort. That is what the magazine stands for, after all — to do the right thing.
The Tejpal story hit a nerve with me for a number of reasons — CNN.com just published a story I reported from India in which I revealed my own rape. Sexual assault happens in all sectors of society. I have never worked full-time for an Indian media institution but I know from friends who have that abuse is widespread.
Reading about Tejpal all over the Indian media today, I came across an interview he gave to CNN-IBN in 2007, after the stinging story about Modi.
“It’s never personal, I keep saying that,” Tejpal said. “It’s not even finally about him. The story is about an extremely dangerous and poisonous school of thinking that is part of the national blood stream now.”
In this case, it is personal. Deeply so for the woman who alleges the assault. But it’s also the latter part of what Tejpal said.
In my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written a lot about victims. Many sorts of victims. Of war. Murder. Illness. Natural disasters. And man-made ones.
I always try to be sensitive and to highlight the incredible resiliency of human beings.
I was lucky enough to have won a Dart-Ochberg Fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I learned many things during that fellowship; how to improve my own reportage about people who have suffered.
All that really hit home last week when CNN published a story I reported from India about a woman who was raped four decades ago. You can read the story here: The Girl Whose Rape Changed a Country.
In the story, I revealed that I, too, had been raped when I was 18. I broke a 33-year silence. I wrote about some of the reaction to the story and how it made me feel in a follow-up. I was reporter and victim all at once.
I so appreciate the outpouring of support from women from around the world. It’s been a very difficult few days, reliving a memory from my past — one that I had put away in one corner of my mind. I tried to forget. But you can never really forget. The good thing is that it is possible to move on.
This post is to thank those who reached out to me. And for my dearest friends who took the time to make sure I was doing OK. Thank you.
I’m moving on to the next story. But I will not be afraid anymore to write about rape.
I have reported difficult stories before. It was never easy to tell tales of tragedy from places like Iraq. But a piece that published on CNN.com today is the hardest story I’ve ever told.
Because it became very personal. Because it was raw.
The producer, the photographer, the cameraman who went with me to Maharashtra for this story had no idea how I was feeling. Even I did not know, really, the emotions that would surface and then haunt me as I returned home from India and began writing the story.
But in the end, I felt it would be disingenuous not to reveal a horrible truth about my own life.
I hope you will read the story on CNN.com. Here is the link:
As always, I have indebted to my editor, Jan Winburn. She edited the story with her usual brilliance and grace. But most of all, she believed in me. Again.
I hope rape survivors will be inspired by the quiet strength of Mathura. I know that I am.
Meet Linda Randolph. Her resume is impressive.
Public health pediatrician. Graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and the School of Public Health in Berkeley, California. She is president and CEO of Developing Families Center, Inc., a non-profit in Washington D.C. that serves low-income women of child-bearing and child-rearing age and their families. She has been recognized for her sensitivity and commitment to the complex needs of poor women, especially those of color. She’s been doing this sort of work for years — three decades to be exact.
I had the privilege of sitting next to her at dinner one night last week at the America Healing conference, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. Randolph nibbled on a slice of prime rib and mashed potatoes. Somehow the conversation migrated from maternal outcomes to the day that Randolph will retire.
“What will you do?” I asked. “Will you stay in Washington?”
Randolph is a native of D.C.
I wasn’t expecting the answer I got.
“I’m going to move to New York and drive a taxi.”
Randolph said there were few women who drove taxis in NYC. She wants another cabbie to glance her way and take a good look when she’s behind the wheel of a yellow cab.
And she’s gonna make sure it’s a taxi with manual transmission.
She loves to drive stick-shift. More than 40 years ago, when she was still young and impressionable, Randolph drove from New York to San Francisco with a friend. He was from Costa Rica and had never shifted gears. But never mind that. They took turns at the wheel: 4 hours each. They drove like the wind and made it to the Pacific in 3 and 1/2 days.
So that’s what Randolph looks forward to. Out performing badass cabbies in the city known for them. I guessed her cabbie days were fast approaching. But how long would she work as a driver? She’s 72 now. Didn’t she want a few years of rest and relaxation?
Well, she said, her mama lived to see 99.
“When she died, she didn’t have a wrinkle on her face.”
Here’s to you, Dr. Linda Randolph, full of life and and now a source of inspiration for me. Here’s to you and many good years as a taxi driver.
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.