I did not know Maya Angelou. We never met. I never shook her hand. I never sat in a class she taught. I never attended a speech she gave. I knew who she was and what she looked and sounded like, but only because of what I saw in pictures and watched on TV.
But I knew her the same way I knew Ralph Wiley. And Ralph Ellison. And James Baldwin. And August Wilson. And the same way I know Toni Morrison. And Nikki Giovanni. And every other contemporary writer — from Wesley Morris and Chuck Klosterman to Chimamanda Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates — whose work I’ve consumed.
There’s an intimacy, a familiarity with writers and their readers unlike any other relationship. They allow us access to their lives. And not just their peripheral existences, but their deepest fears, their most uncomfortable memories, their subconscious motivations, their haven’t-yet-showered morning mirror reflections. They allow us to know them without us actually knowing them. They give us their lives. We give them our attention.
And, when a writer dies, they leave behind a dichotomous legacy that’s equal parts surreal and…tender. You mourn their death while appreciating the fact that their work — the thing that made them so vibrant, so kinetic, so alive — is immortal.
Maya Angelou died today. But Maya Angelou will always be here. She will continue to teach. She will continue to challenge. She will continue to inspire. She will continue to be.
I never met Maya Angelou. But I thank her for allowing me to know her.