This is how the story goes: Every human being on the planet is closer to any other person in any other part of the world by just 6 degrees, or six human beings. According to Wikipedia, ‘it refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on Earth. It was popularized by a play written by John Guare.”
In the begining, there was just me, going to a University in Ibadan, Nigeria. I had gone through all my primary and secondary education in this same city, so it was just as well that I never knew – nor would have given any thought to – the reality, fact or fiction of the phenomenon of “six degrees of separation.” There was no way in the world that a little boy from that ancient town could relate to the likes of Martin Luther King Jnr, Roberta Flack, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Coretta Scott King or Toni Morrison, even if by chance I knew a few of their names back then. The first American I could say I warmed up to was James Hardley Chase, and I didn’t know if we’d have gone along well if the chance ever presented itself for us to meet. Then there was Denise Robbins, whose many novels I read before I completed secondary school. The likes of Mark Twain, and Alex Haley came much much later, as did Toni Morrison, Eugene Redmond and Maya Angelou. I remember seeing Maya the first time while browsing through the now rested Microsoft Encarta Africana CD of 2002, and watching her read her poem, “Still I rise.” I was enchanted immediately, and while reading more about her, I realized that it was impossible not to be, considering how much of stories her life embodies. She was born in St. Louis, grew up in Southern California and Arkansas, then moved over to Ghana with her African Revolutionary husband whom she had met in the United States during the anti-colonial movement of the fifties. She returned to the States after her first son to the African, became a dancer, writer, teacher, public speaker, novelist, poet, film director and movie producer and later Inaugural Poet, the first African-American so honoured to recite for the in-coming president. She read her poem On the Pulse of Morning for the Bill Clinton in 1993.
Now here I am in Illinois, less than ten years after that memorable introduction, now meeting the icon face to face in a campus auditorium. Looking at a slide show of pictures taken from the Eugene Redmond collection of photos of Maya Angelou on the big screen, I see a shot of her once with Coretta Scott King, the widow of the slain Civil Rights Activist, then another with Toni Morrison, then Oprah Winfrey, Eugene Redmond, Amiri Baraka and very many other famous names in African-American culture, and I remembered the rule of separation. If only because of this enchanting day, this time and this moment of fate, I can say that I may have finally connected my last branch of life’s six degrees, joining imaginary hands with all of the rest of the world, with everyone just six persons – or less – distant from me, no matter where they are. Oh how I like the sound of that!