I discovered Maya Angelou when I was a teenager. I can't remember exactly how old I was when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was a book she had to write to get rid of some of her demons and it was a book that I had to read for the same purpose. I was a young girl living alone with an alcoholic father and I had a feeling that she understood my life if no one else did. It might seem a stretch to equate my privileged situation with a woman born black and talented into a world that stacked the deck against her. She was also born into a situation where silence was her only weapon and refuge. And in that I think we may have shared some of the same inner conversations.
But the real gift she gave to me was hope. She had irrepressible hope. She had a zest for life and love and friends--and she celebrated these even in the midst of everything determined to stomp that hope into the ground.
I continued to read everything she ever wrote for the rest of her life. I think her last book was on the subject of family celebrations and that was my gift to my daughters the Mothers Day the book came out.
I have her poetry taped to my bathroom mirror:
If I am even slightly like the women she describes it's not because one day I read a quote and thought it sounded cool, it is because I've been reading her books and poetry since I was young. Her words became in many ways a sort of surrogate mother to me.A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing.She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination,
prepared to be herself and only herself.-Maya Angelou
Before she was a world-reknown poet and spokesperson for the soul she was a gangly and skinny black girl in Arkansas who lived literally on the wrong side of the tracks. I saw an interview Bill Moyers did with her about 30 years ago and they went back to that town. Moyers asked her about those railroad tracks and invited her to cross them with him. There was a long, thoughtful pause and with an expression of wounded graciousness, she declined the opportunity. Even years later it was still painful to her.
In her youthful prime (because she had many different primes of life) she lived in Africa and became a comfortable and confident woman. She came home to know the Civil Rights leaders as personal friends by working with them. Whenever I have the opportunity to sing Lift Every Voice and Sing she is one of the heroes that come to my mind. She understood the risks, the rewards and the responsibilities.
And she considered Forgiveness as a responsibility just as she considered Joy to be a reward.
She also held responsibility as a great virtue. She scolded young black men as only a mother can. She was one of those "pull up your pants, I can see your drawers!" kind of women.She expected better of everyone because she knew there was potential in all of us.
If we acknowledge her insistence on being responsible citizens of the Kingdom of God then women of my generation know the torch has been passed to us. As frightening as the idea is, we are prepared by so many wonderful words she left for us: words of substance and instruction and words of inspiration and encouragement.
If you know a young person I urge you to introduce them to her words. They are timeless.
One of her most famous poems was delivered at a Bill Clinton's inauguration. It's a long poem, building to a climax at the end when she says:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
Into your brother's face, your country
And say simply