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Kristen Swing

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Six hours of cooking and conversation

June 6th, 2014 4:39 pm by Kristen Swing

Six hours of cooking and conversation

Maya Angelou, center, with Bert Allen, left, and Jim Street, right, during the visit in 1989. (Contributed)

When Maya Angelou is laid to rest following her funeral services Saturday, many people will remember the woman as a brilliant poet, professor, author, activist, singer and speaker.

Local resident Bert Allen will remember those things about her, too. He’ll also remember her as a gourmet chef who liked to cook sans shoes and welcomed him with open arms into her home.

Allen, professor emeritus of psychology at Milligan College, and then-colleague Jim Street spent the day with Angelou in the summer of 1989.

During a conference Allen organized that year on the topic of post-traumatic stress, a video aired featuring Angelou talking about the abuse and molestation she suffered as a young girl and her subsequent years as a mute.

Frank Ochberg, a former department head at the National Institute of Mental Health, was among those to see the video.

“Frank was touched by it. We all were,” Allen said. “He challenged Jim and me to find a way to visit with her.”

The pair took the challenge, crafting a letter to Angelou, who lived in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Lo and behold, Jim got this call one day from a very dignified African American voice. She said, ‘Sure,’” Allen recalled. “I couldn’t believe it when Jim said, ‘We’re going to visit Maya Angelou.’ We were stunned.”

The pair, joined by Ochberg and one of his colleagues, arrived at Angelou’s home in Winston-Salem around 10 a.m. that summer day in ‘89.

“If you were to go into a split foyer house anywhere in Johnson City, it would be like going to her house,” Allen said of Angelou’s home. “It was on a regular street. You would never know someone of her merit was living inside that home.”

The modesty of Angelou’s home was the first of many surprises for Allen that day.

While Angelou’s assistant was at the home during the visit, she made herself sparse, leaving just the four guests to spend plenty of solo time with the famed poet.

“We spent the day in the dining room/kitchen area while she cooked for us,” Allen remembered. “After a little while, she kicked off her shoes. She was the shoeless chef.”

Allen doesn’t recall exactly what Angelou cooked.

“I should, but I don’t,” he said after a reflective pause. “It was delicious though, as was the conversation. We talked very honestly about a lot of things. She told us a lot about life.”

Calling himself — and Street — “a child of the South,” Allen said they discussed bias, hatred and racism with Angelou. They also talked about the abuse she endured as a child.

“She obviously is a victim of post-traumatic stress. We talked about her demonstrated response to trauma by her going selectively mute for several years. It was a warm, but straightforward conversation,” Allen said. “She was genuine and open. She was as interested in us as we were in her. In spite of her brilliance, she was able to converse and relate, very aware that we’re all alike.”

Spending the day with such a “wonderful woman” is something Allen will never forget.

“It was six hours of cooking and conversation. The whole thing was heaven,” he said. “I never talked to her again, but I left there feeling like we were good friends.”

Allen said he was sad to hear of Angelou’s death late last month “because she had a very significant effect on lots of people of all sorts.”

Angelou was 86 when she died May 28 at her home in Winston-Salem. Her private memorial service is scheduled to take place Saturday at 10 a.m. at Wake Forest University where she was a professor. 

First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey are among those scheduled to speak at Angelou’s funeral.

The university will stream the funeral live. Click here to watch.

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