Angelou Appears After All

Melissa Bailey PhotoJust days after her death, Maya Angelou disappeared from outside an Orchard Street corner store—then reappeared to “wake up” and inspire the Dixwell neighborhood.

The appearance took place Monday at the corner of Orchard and Henry Streets, where graffiti artists Dooley-o Jackson and Alberto Colon painted a mural on the side of the Orchard Street Market.

For the past 10 years, the wall featured a mural including a quotation by Angelou. Jackson had planned to wipe out the words to make way for a new mural memorializing Abdul Rawas, the clerk who was killed during a robbery at the market in January 2013.

Then Angelou, the reknowned poet, died last week at the age of 86. Jackson faced a dilemma: Should he wipe out her words to make way for Rawas, or keep them to honor her life, too?

“You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies,” the Angelou quotation reads. “You may trod me in the very dirt. But still, like dust, we rise.”

In a True Vote survey, 90 percent of Independent readers called for preserving the quotation in some form.

“I read the survey,” said Colon (pictured). “That put the pressure on” to keep Angelou’s quotation. People in the neighborhood agreed, Colon said. “They spoke, and we just accepted it.”

Colon and Jackson are part of a group of artists called TSB, which stands for The Soul Brothers. They decided to not only keep Angelou’s words, but to add her portrait to the wall of the market that faces Henry Street. (They erased the quote, and plan to rewrite it, plus add another.)

They decided to paint the memorial for Rawas on a second wall, facing Orchard Street. The memorial will involve the words “Rest In Peace” and the dates of Rawas’ “sunset” and “sunrise.”

Rawas (pictured) was a kind man whom everybody liked, according to clerk Mohamed Ali.

The Soul Brothers plan to paint his mural on Friday. First, they got started on Maya Angelou.

Colon, who works full-time driving elderly and disabled New Haveners around town for MyRide, got interested in spray-painting as a kid growing up in the Hill neighborhood. He just won a competitive bid to paint a government-sanctioned piece under the I-91 overpass on Humphrey Street. Jackson is curating the installation.

To pay homage to Angelou, Colon found a photo of the poet on the web. He converted it into black and white and printed it out. He stenciled out the structure of her face in yellow paint on Sunday, then returned Monday to bring her face to life.

Colon worked on the Angelou portrait with gray, white and black spray-paint, while Jackson wrote his tag, Dooley-o, in bold yellow, red and green. The Soul Brothers have painted murals on over 20 walls in the Hill, Jackson said.

Their work aims to liven up urban streets without promoting guns or violence, he said.

Their painting drew a steady stream of exclamations and thumbs-up from people driving and walking through the busy intersection Monday afternoon.

“Is that Maya Angelou?” called out Zaria Sanders, who was walking past the store with fellow student Naomi Thorne on their way home from Hillhouse High School.

“She’s a very inspirational person,” Naomi said.

Zaria, a sophomore, said she had read an Angelou poem in school, but she couldn’t remember which one. She took out her cell phone and searched the web.

She announced that her favorite Angelou poem is “Still I Rise.”

She read it on her phone and summarized the message: “What happens to you, you could always overcome it.”

Lawrence Andrews, 62, who lives near the market, poked his head around the corner to check it out.

“That’s beauty!” he declared.

He said he didn’t know much about Angelou until she died. Then he watched an Oprah special and learned that the African-American writer had a “relentless work ethic” and deferred to her mother’s wisdom.

“We live in a brutal,” “murderous” time, he said, where people kill each other in the streets, don’t hold down steady jobs, and don’t respect their elders. Neighborhood kids could learn from her example, he said.

Johanna Davis, whose sister-in-law runs a boxing gym across the street, snapped photos on her cell phone of the work in progress.

“This is a monumental piece,” she declared. “You should walk by and be inspired.”

Mohamed Ali, a Syrian-born clerk with a master’s in political science, emerged from the store to admire the work. He said he isn’t familiar with Angelou’s work, but he declared the portrait “amazing.” He rewarded the artists with little bottles of Welch’s orange pineapple apple juice.

Around 2:45 p.m., Robert Smith (pictured at the top of this story), 55, pedaled past the painting on a black bicycle, hauling a heavy lawn-mower and some hedge-trimming tools in his right hand as he held onto the bike with the other. He said he had just dragged the lawnmower all the way from Ramsdell Street, where he had been doing a landscaping job three miles away. He said his truck broke down and he couldn’t afford to lose the work. He wheeled up his equipment next to the market and peered over at Colon’s work.

He didn’t recognize the face at first: “Is it Tiger Woods?”

Then he learned it was a portrait of Angelou, who had just passed away.

“It should make people wake up and realize that one day we are all going to leave here,” he said. “We’ve got to be an example.”

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posted by: HewNaven on June 3, 2014  7:01am

I think the fact that most people don’t recognize Angelou is proof we need to promote positive role models even more in our community. Ask anyone who is familiar with Angelou, they will tell you her words have changed the way they see the world. People like her do not come around that often. We should go to great lengths to connect young people with figures like Angelou, using murals, sculpture, and most importantly, with discussion.

posted by: Nhv.Org on June 5, 2014  10:56am

A video of some of the work in progress exists. Overlaid with Angelou footage, speaking of advice she gave her son, it commemorates her life and the making of the mural. Within that, you can also find links to Dooley-O’s website, as well as a few other links, including an embedded map of the mural location if you’d like to visit it in person. The post also includes the example of the old original mural, which is still available on Google Maps.

posted by: sparkeynh on June 7, 2014  11:47pm

Great reporting.