I was listening to the radio when I heard the announcement that Maya Angelou had passed. Pulling over, I began to cry as I heard the tributes pour in. I felt that I had lost a dear friend.
I didn’t know Ms. Angelou. I never had the privilege to meet her or the opportunity to hear her speak in person. But, I felt as if I knew her and as if she knew me. That ability, I think, is at least a little part of why she was such an incredible individual. She spoke to me in a way that few persons of her status have been able to. She was an activist, a writer, a poet, a trailblazer, and she was an Every Woman. She dined with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, with Presidents Clinton and Obama. She attended state and international functions. Dignified and gracious, she commanded an audience as she addressed dignitaries and celebrities. But she was never above anyone else. She was of the people. You, me, the President– it didn’t matter. She was with us, and she made me feel as if I were with her.
I first encountered her writing as a student teacher and was immediately hooked. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of her autobiography, I was taken by how much strength she exhibited, by how much character she possessed, by how she worked through and rose above the trials thrown at her. Her diction and descriptions enthralled me, leaving me wanting more and leading me, ever thankfully, to her poetry.
I used to teach poetry to high school students, and, I’ll tell you, it could be a hard sell. Preconceived and erroneous notions of poetry–it must rhyme, it’s only for girls, only gay guys write poetry, it’s always about love–affected the uneasiness of many students, mostly males. In came Still I Rise and Phenomenal Woman and On the Pulse of the Morning. These poems presented truths, fully, unapologetically, beautifully. Their honesty, unabashed and relatable, resonated with many of the students who previously had protested that poetry was not for them. Ms. Angelou reached out and enveloped these students with her ability to weave words into meaning, as she had me.
I’m sorry that I never wrote to Ms. Angelou and tell her what a profound effect she had on me as a reader, as a woman, and as a teacher. “Phenomenal Woman” was a revelation, to both my students and myself. Used to being objectified by others’ standards, my female students embraced the sense of ownership of themselves, studied the poem, and discussed how it applied to them. I was thrilled when I saw a number of the girls slip their copy into the front cover of their binders, there for the world to see. Now, as a mother, that poem resonates ever more strongly. I wish my daughters to know and have the strength that the poem declares. I want them to live that confidence and carry themselves proudly, to define themselves by their standards.
Ms. Angelou gave me the courage as a young teacher to respond to a parent who complained that I was teaching I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because she considered it “offensive” as it described rape. She was with me in spirit when I responded that the book was not offensive, that reading about rape was not offensive, and the fact that Maya had been raped was an offense against Maya and not her, the parent. I did not hear from that parent again.
I remember showing my students the video of Ms. Angelou reading “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration. We watched and listened as her cadence rose and fell, as she paused, as she addressed, as she challenged, as she encouraged, as she humanized, as she drew us together.
(Video credit: William Clinton Presidential Library)
Here on the pulse of this new day/You may have the grace to look up and out/And into your sister’s eyes, into/Your brother’s face, your country/And say simply/Very simply/With hope/Good morning.
Goodbye, Ms. Angelou, and thank you. Thank you for your words, your wisdom, your example, your courage, and your hope.
May you rest in peace.