“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot — it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that, I try to make sure my experiences are positive.” — Maya Angelou
My first experience of Maya Angelou, who died this week at the age of 86, happened in high school. We weren’t required to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in a literature class and my all-girl’s private Catholic school definitely didn’t have a Black History course. No, the first time I heard Maya Angelou’s words was out of the mouth of young black women about my age performing “Phenomenal Woman” at an event for the black social organization I was a member of, Jack and Jill. I’d definitely heard poems read and recited aloud, but this was the first time I felt the words of a poet come to life. We were in our teens, so the material was a bit mature, but the fact that the artist put her own spin on Ms. Angelou’s timeless words of black female empowerment and an awareness and pride of the female body left an impression on me.
As I watched quotes and memories of Ms. Angelou pepper my Facebook feed yesterday, it became clear that her words — honest, poignant and clearly evocative of her own experience — are also universal and have touched many generations of men and women from a variety of races, religions and cultural backgrounds. Born as Marguerite Johnson in April 1928, Maya Angelou is best known for her works of literature and her activism, though she was also a Tony-nominated actress, dancer and performer as well as a professor of American History at Wake Forest University.
Ms. Angelou’s life and many accomplishments are well-documented and tributes to her life’s work can be found all over television and news outlets by writers far more eloquent than I. Yet, to my mind it doesn’t matter that she was Maya Angelou the author, the activist the whatever. She was simply Mom to her son and Grandma to her grandchildren. While the entire world is grieving the words of this literary genius, her family is grieving the person.
When my sister passed away recently, I had to remind myself that our time on the planet isn’t guaranteed and while some people leave us too early and others leave after long, full lives, the people that are left behind feel the same level of grief, loss and sometimes anger. The impact that the people who leave us have on our lives is permanent. My sister, while not world-renowned, was a poet, artist and inspiration to our Ohio community whose words continue to inspire us and impact us and allow us to keep a piece of her gift in the times when missing her becomes unbearable. I am lucky to have lived in my sister’s presence and to have been blessed with her gift and the world is lucky to have lived in Maya Angelou’s bright presence and we are blessed to have been allowed to experience the world of Maya Angelou through her honest words. I’d like to imagine that Maya is giving Patrice some pointers on her poems in heaven.
I can only hope as we continue to lose the voices of Ms. Angelou’s generation that writers and activists continue to be inspired and galvanized by the world around them. I hope that we not only learn from the experiences of people lost, but continue to speak and write our individual truths. The world that Maya Angelou lived in when she wrote “Caged Bird” is not the world of today, but it doesn’t give us an excuse to stop the work. I think the best way to remember her work is to keep reading it, sharing it and living it so that it will be an important example of female empowerment and the unshakable drive of determined women of color.
Her memory is and always has been a blessing for us all. Baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the true judge.