Maya Angelou was raped as a child. Visiting her aunt and uncle, she was frightened to tell them about the rapist for fear her uncle would hurt this man. She decided to use her voice; she decided to tell. Some time afterwards a sheriff knocked on the door to report that they found the man dead. Maya (I think she was around 7 years old) concluded, in her child’s mind, that she was responsible. In response to the “deadliness of her voice” she decided not to speak. She didn’t use her voice for over 6 years. While I don’t think she killed this man; I do think there was immense power in her voice. Anyone who listened to her couldn’t help but be profoundly moved. The unfolding and life-giving power of that voice would change the course of millions.
In her silence she created an alchemical chamber where the power and absolute beauty of her voice unfolded and flowered. Her grandmother, whom she called “mama” never tried to correct Maya or “heal” her from her wound. Instead, mama kept telling Maya that she would be a great teacher someday. Mama knew something that very few would even consider – that the soul, spirit, and nature of this young girl were transforming and needed to be held in a radical faith and love. Maya suffered great insult not speaking as a youth – she was teased, criticized, and mocked as she wrote her words for others to see instead of using her voice. She spent much time under mama’s porch feeding on poetry, both black and white.
One day, six years later, mama said, “You’ll never appreciate those words until you hear them rolling off your own lips.” (Forgive me for not quoting this exactly, it is from my memory. The quote can be found in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). She took Maya to church to speak before the congregation. Maya let some poetry pass over her lips, but it was not a black poet as most would have expected. Here are her words:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
This is Sonnet 29 from William Shakespeare. When asked why she didn’t recite a black poet, why she recited Shakespeare, she said, “I knew that poem was written for me.”
Maya knew, as a black girl, a silent child, what it meant to be in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes; I’m sure, often, she “alone bewept her outcast state.” But she also knew that nature made her, even in her trauma, more than a king.
The first time I saw Dr. Angelou she was in her 60’s. She told the story of her rape. Some people and counselors thought that she needed to let this part of her story go, but I was inspired that she didn’t ‘heal it away;’ instead, she made it into something. Life, mama, and Maya made that story into something gloriously human with all the potential we all have to make the deepest humanity out of our pain and suffering. I can hear her saying, “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.”
Photograph by Michael Collopy
The next time I saw her was around ten years ago; I suppose she was about 76 years old. She asked to be introduced as Dr. Maya Angelou. She had earned her doctorate, spoke 7 languages, and had many honorary doctorates as well. She said something that amazed me – that it was not easy for her to ask others to use the label “doctor” to refer to her. It was easy for mainstream America to see her as a poet, an author, and a dancer, but as a doctor – many were still having to get over their prejudices to be comfortable calling a black woman “doctor.” I think this is still true. Here was one of the grandest intelligences America had to offer, here was a black woman six feet tall, wearing heals and a sleeveless blouse, standing before thousands who came to hear her speak and still she was growing into her full self, her full powers. What a model!
The last time I saw Dr. Angelou she told a story of a white woman who came up to her after one of her talks. The woman thanked her saying that her daughter was suicidal but changed the course of her life after hearing Dr. Maya Angelou speak. And then the woman did something unexpected; she said that she was surprised to learn that this influence on her daughter’s life looked like her – a black woman. My eyes teared; my gut cringed. How would this model of humanity respond? I imagined she would see this woman for the ignorant child she was. Instead, Maya said that she went home and cried much of the weekend. She cried; even though we “shouldn’t take people personally,” “Shouldn’t suffer fools,” etc. She cried; that meant that I could also. I was in law school at that time; I was in my early 40’s. I cried many evenings after class. Maya told me it was ok.
I remember reading an interview she did with Dr. Cornel West where she told the story of being on the set of the film Poetic Justice. A fight ensued between two men and threatened to become violent. People on the set backed off wanting to protect themselves. I believe one man pulled out a gun. She stepped in, put her hands on one of the men, and said, “Let me speak to you. Let me talk to you. Do you know you’re the best we have? Do you know we don’t have anybody better than you? Do you know everybody has paid for you, and they’re all dead?” The man started to cry and she walked him away from others so he would not be ashamed of his tears. She didn’t know at the time that the man was Tupac Shakur. When asked in an interview years later why she did that, Dr. Angelou said sometimes we have to put our hands on another person and remind them how precious they are; to remind them that they are the best we have.
In honor of Dr. Maya Angelou, may I say in my own voice, a voice empowered by hers, you are the best we have; each of us are the best we have.
You might also like:
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Saint, Man, or Idol?
Thinking Psychologically About Race: A Call to Conscience
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