Maya Angelou was a driving force behind me acknowledging that I am a poet, and the rest are just adjectives modifying me for someone’s consumption.
I was first introduced to her work in the 8th grade. My brother’s then-girlfriend was putting on a production for Black History Month at my junior high school. She gave me the poem Phenomenal Woman to memorize and recite in front of the entire student body. I was painfully shy, and was so scared. She didn’t take the time to coach me to do it, she just stripped me of the honor and allowed someone else to do it. I’ve never forgotten how small that made me feel. There’s been other times in life where I felt my voice silenced, my opinions unwarranted, unwanted and undesirable.
Yet, that poem stayed with me. As I grew older, the word’s and their meaning took root inside of me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery…
We never met.
I didn’t have the privilege of holding her weathered hand in mine, listening to her talk story. Her smile shone with an inner peace that I wanted, and her words dripped like honeyed wisdom and I hoped they would sweeten my bitter insides. I wanted to learn her way. Walk in her shoes so that I too could write something greater than myself.
The closest I came to her was when Dr. Angelou was at my Alma mater West Virginia University in 2001. I smuggled in a small micro-recorder and tried to absorb her words into my very skin. The opportunity to hear from a role model is often fleeting. I needed all the words. Of course, the recorder was lost along the many moves I’ve had to make, but I wore the words on my heart. To remind me that being beaten, hadn’t made me broken. The importance of following my path was paramount to making any positive impact in life.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see…
I know her basic facts:
If you’d like a more complete history, here’s her official web site. When Maya Angelou admitted that her mother’s boyfriend at 7 years old, he was found and stomped to death. She was convinced her voice had the power to kill and stopped talking for six years. She spoke more about this and the other traumas of growing poor and black in the Jim Crow South south in I know Why a Caged Bird Sings (1969).
Angelou dropped out of school and later returned to high school to get her diploma. She gave birth a few weeks after graduation. She worked as a waitress and later a dancer and singer. She toured Europe in the mid-1950s in the opera production “Porgy and Bess.” When she would forget lyrics on stage, she would dance for the people. They loved it. In 1957, she recorded her first album, “Miss Calypso.”
While in Ghana, Angelou met Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America with him to help form his Organization of African American Unity. In 1958, Angelou become a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York. She wrote I know why the Caged bird sings with the encouragement of the Harlem Writers Guild, but especially James Baldwin.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style…
The value in me
She taught me that my words matter. That I’m more than a sum of my parts-black skin, thick-lips, woman, breasts, hips, that the truth to my power is in all of me. To allow no one to speak for me, or to judge me. This path is mine alone, and I would work the hell out of it. Acknowledge those before me and since who have attempted this path, but to make forge my way. That finding my inner strength and learning from the bad things will take me further. That being a woman made me a force to be reckoned with.
I’m a woman
(Except from Phenomenal Woman from “And Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou (1978 ))
Thank Maya Angelou for showing us all that the scars we carry do not have to be silenced forever. Giving them a voice empowers us and can help others to speak.