Below is my tribute to Maya Angelou. Much of it comes from my collective memoir I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves. I would not have had the courage to tell my story if it had not been for Maya Angelou, who risked all to tell her own painful and beautiful truth. I cannot begin to imagine a world without her in it, and I am so grateful for the body of work she leaves behind so that future generations will be able to know this phenomenal woman.
Maya Angelou, Wikimedia Commons
Being a woman is hard work. Not without joy and even ecstasy, but still relentless, unending work. Becoming an old female may require only being born with certain genitalia, inheriting long-living genes and the fortune not to be run over by an out-of-control truck, but to become and remain a woman commands the existence and employment of genius.
~Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now
The women I have always allowed to guide my life, my role models, my mentors, have almost always been women who, like me, had absent or inaccessible fathers, and experienced trauma early in their lives. Somehow, they not only survived, they thrived. Maya Angelou (b. 1928) is one of those women. I was a freshman in college when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and that well-worn paperback is still one of my most valued possessions. I have re-read the book countless times, and each time I am in awe of the little girl who was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was just seven, yet survived and grew into a respected and revered author, professor, and speaker. Maya carries great stature, deliberately, her shoulders squared, her eyes meeting yours directly. Her voice sings a deep, strong, slow, soothing song. She is indeed a phenomenal woman.
Maya Angelou achieved her admirable, powerful place primarily because of her grandmother, who essentially raised her, and to whom she returned, mute and broken, soon after her assault. Her grandmother, other women in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, and eventually her own mother, were her models of strength, grit, fortitude, beauty and grace. Maya Angelou has helped me find one answer to that question of why some women are able to overcome adversity and triumph, while others cannot, or do not. In the absence of an involved father, a strong female role model makes all the difference.
It isn’t easy to speak the truth regarding my own stories, and, until recently, I doubted that I could even do it. Yet, a few years ago, I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Maya Angelou speak in downtown Denver as part of a Unique Lives and Experiences program. I paid extra to go to a reception following her presentation. I patiently waited while others who also wanted to get close enough to inhale her wisdom took turns asking questions. Finally, I managed to squeeze close enough for her to see me. I raised my hand. Her eyes met mine, and she smiled. “Yes?”
This was my moment, my one chance to ask Maya Angelou the question I had been dying to have answered ever since I had first read her work. “How do you write the truth without worrying about hurting others?”
She smiled and looked at me as if I should already know the answer, as if it was a non-question: “The truth is the truth. Whether I write it or not, it is still the truth. People know what the truth is.” Why, then, have I been so afraid to write it? So afraid that my words will hurt those who read them—my mother, my father, my sisters, my children. Her answer, in all its simplicity, paved the way for the words to flow from my aching heart. What drives them is not the desire to hurt; it is the desire to write the truth so that others may be helped, so that the cycle can be broken. That’s it.
Telling our own personal truths, no matter how painful a process, will change our social history and will impact future generations, but only if those truths continue to be told, and aren’t lost through neglect or silenced by others. It is up to us to continue to tell our own stories, and to make others aware of the stories of the women who came before us.
Without Maya Angelou’s simple words of encouragement, I doubt that I would have had the courage to tell my truth. I owe her, and all of the women who have come before me and have risked sharing their stories, such a tremendous debt of gratitude. If it weren’t for their efforts, their courage, their strength, their pure grit, women would not live the lives we do today. We need to learn from those who fought the battles before us, and we need to pass those lessons on to those who are coming up behind us. We have an obligation to ensure that today’s girls and young women have the support and the education they need—the life lessons of all of the women who have walked the path before them—so that they know they are not alone. They can turn to any one of us, and we will guide them.
Maya Angelou was one of my primary guides—my beautiful muse. I will miss her.