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One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes—one I love so much that I gave all my friends an illustrated copy of it—is: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

So when the keynote speaker at the first Cleveland Single Moms Conference dropped this gem mid-way through her talk, I felt an instant connection. Robyn Hill, a licensed counselor with a practice on the east side of Cleveland, made Angelou the focus of her keynote, sharing with more than 75 attendees 11 insights from the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances” seemed particularly apt.

Professor Michelle Rankins led a lunchtime session punctuated by two Angelou poems, “Phenomenal Woman” and “I Love the Look of Words.” The discussion was so rich around the first that the group hardly had time for the second.

The group read “Phenomenal Woman” in unison, forceful and strong voices booming through the open air of the Cleveland Galleria. “When I read it, it made me think that beauty is internal,” one participant said. “When you find your inner strength,” another noted, “no one can touch you.”

Conference organizer Frechic Dickson, founder of the nonprofit From Lemons 2 Lemonade, reached out to Books@Work to create the session.Single Moms Conference 1

“We believed being able to have a table full of women expressing themselves through the pages of poetic literature could become a life-changing experience,” said Dickson, who oversees Books@Work for women in East Cleveland Municipal Court. “The Books@Work session allowed single moms to share their experiences, their interpretations, and most of all, their commonalities with each other through those poetic pieces.”

For her part, Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work founder and executive director said, “Not everyone works in a traditional company large enough to support Books@Work. Community programs help us meet people where they are–in their schools and libraries and, in this instance, their conference.”

The Single Moms Conference offered Books@Work the chance to reach readers who might feel isolated. “Moms spend so much time reading to their children, but they rarely have time to read for themselves – much less discuss what they read with others,” Smith said. “We wanted to change this, at least for one hour. And by selecting poetry we hoped to show that a reading session doesn’t have to be long to be nourishing for the soul and productive for the mind.”

One participant observed, “The world says [black women] are less than but this poem says what people should look at us and see.”

Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrison found herself on stage at the Hay Festival in Wales May 28, the same day her friend Maya Angelou died in North Carolina at the age of 86. The obvious question—”Do you have any words to say about her life and legacy?”—was coming.

“She launched African-American women writing in the United States,” Morrison said, choosing her words carefully. “She was generous to a fault. She had 19 talents…used 10. She was a real original. There’s no duplicate.”

The friendship between Morrison and Angelou spanned more than 40 years. In 1973, Angelou wrote to Morrison after she finished reading Sula, telling her, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Their friendship deepened as they continued to cross paths and support one another’s work over the decades. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Angelou threw a party at her Winston-Salem home.

In 2012, Angelou traveled to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to toast Morrison’s contributions to literature. Poet Nikki Giovanni organized “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day celebration on the Blacksburg campus where she has taught since 1987. The guest list was historic, with Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis in attendance.

The writers assembled at Giovanni’s request, as a show of solidarity after the quick death of Morrison’s son Slade from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The gathering took its name from the dedication for Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula :“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

Former poet laureate Rita Dove read from Song of Solomon. Poet Toi Derricotte selected a portion of Sula. Members of the Toni Morrison Society, now relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, performed a stirring passage from Beloved.

On stage, Maya Angelou smiled at the crowd and praised her friend for liberating her as a younger woman. “That is what this woman has done through 10 books: loving, respecting, and appreciating the African-American woman and all the things she goes through.”

Later, Morrison said, “This is as good as it gets.”

She gave credit to Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for helping her discover the meaning in her work. “I had not seen that kind of contemporary clarity, honesty…sentences that were more than what happened, but how….I took sustenance from that. The door was open, so black women writers stepped through.”

Sheer Good Fortune – A Documentary from virginiatech on Vimeo.