But like the generations before us we tend to admire people who, for whatever reason, spoke life and hope into our circumstances, described the societal highs and lows that defined culture and gave rise to revolutions – on the paved streets in my old neighborhood and in the midst of hearts seeking meaning to life. Maya Angelou, right alongside her deeply contrasting counterpart and fictional character – Nancy Drew, was one of those people to me.
As a little girl I dreamed passionately of being a writer. In my play time I was a successful “investigative news reporter and poet” all at the same time. I was also black. Even at 11 years old I understood what that meant in the deep south, and in a household with parents who had survived the Civil Rights Movement and were getting used to not having to drink from “colored only water fountains” and ride in the back seat of the city bus. Their stories are forever engraved in my memory.
As I type this, I am fondly reminded of my old poetry books full of comments and notes sitting on the shelves behind me that taught history better than history books; that told stories broader than novels; and that spoke for my mother and father’s generation in a way that no documentary ever could. The truth of poets like Maya Angelou flow from the heart of passionate storytellers, those who understand what it means to “have voice” and “be heard.”
Maya Angelou understood what it meant to speak, and be heard.
I remember the first time one of my elementary school teachers recited, “And Still I Rise…” It became an anthem for this young girl with an “identity crises” erupting in her soul – before she really knew her identity in God. It became an anthem to my inner and outward beauty that flowed way beyond the images in Ebony and Cosmopolitan Magazine or from the recently launched mesmerizing images from MTV. My friends and I had a new reason to gather together in our rooms and imagine a “glorious future.”
I miss those days when we’d list the names of the boys we wanted to marry, and the kinds of houses we would own and cars we’d drive, and the number of children we’d have when we grew up. All that dreamin’ seems like a lifetime ago. But when you would open one of Maya Angelou’s poetry books, you’d be reminded of those days… that innocence.
Yes, we were children. Perhaps, nerds…but we were children who read books, children who loved to write and children who grew to love poetry and spoken word in a way similar to how boys in our neighborhood liked to beat-box and rap on the corner in hot Georgia summers; and how my sisters and brother loved to participate in the neighborhood Soul Train line with their battery powered boom boxes sitting on the sidewalk.
Maya Angelou reminded me of those times.
In my college years her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was required reading. As an 18-year-old impressionable young woman finding her way, I gained some “class” through reading this book. I learned the importance of honoring myself and the depth behind what respect really looks like – true respect in which you appreciate what others have endured and value leaving a worthy legacy that many others might follow. Though I never met her, her writings met me in my maturation and growth.
Maya Angelou inspired me to be fierce and courageous. She was my silent, unlikely heroine in the midst of my own personal Good-Times-Cosby Show-Contrasting-Nancy-Drew coming-of-age saga. I am sure she was such to so many others, in her own way – especially women and especially poets.
Dr. Angelou, thank you for your voice. Truly, you will be missed - 1928-2014.
Copyright 2014 Theresa Harvard Johnson