Veteran talk show host Smiley (Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year, 2014, etc.) chronicles his relationship with Maya Angelou (1928-2014), his intellectual and spiritual guide.
The author recounts how, as an eager and insecure young man, he was in awe of the multitalented woman who "dispens[ed] love with such natural and joyful ease…[it] drew people to her.” Dr. Angelou gently scolded Smiley for his "idolatrous attitude,” yet he writes about her with such fascination and awe it approaches hagiography. The woman he came to call "Mother Maya" (she affectionately called him "young Tavis Smiley") was his Buddha: a teacher, a wise elder, and a gentle corrector of his behavior, thoughts, and perspective. He remained a student at her feet, though some readers might regard him as overly fawning. Smiley wisely shapes what he learned from Angelou in the form of conversations they had over decades. The resulting narrative, comprised of Angelou’s words as speeches, stories, and lectures, appropriately keeps the focus on the woman and her teachings rather than Smiley’s own (impressive) credentials. To his credit, he shares Angelou's criticism of his BET interview show—that he's very prepared and informed but also too eager to speak and not a good listener. Here, Smiley proves to be a faithful recorder of Angelou’s poise, compassion, and dignity. Throughout, he illustrates how Angelou regularly combined practicality and spirituality. “Her practical advice—be assertive, not aggressive,” writes the author. “Her spiritual advice—be yourself.”
Readers might feel regret for not having the privilege of meeting Angelou personally, but Smiley has faithfully re-created both her voice's "haunting beauty and lilting musicality" and the experience of receiving her transformative wisdom, humor, and compassion.