Bringing the Gifts: Maya and Me
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” – Dr. Maya Angelou
Losing a loved one is never easy. Dr. Maya Angelou’s calm demeanor, matter-of-fact statements, and the ability to wield her truth in painfully beautiful ways always gave me courage to tell my own. I’ve shed so many tears since I learned of her passing. Not because I’m unable to join in the celebration of her inspiring life. I’m missing her. And hoping I can make her proud. Hoping I can push through this thick cloud and come out wielding a truth that gives brown girls wings to fly and legs to stand on and a confidence that’s so deeply ingrained that walking away from that which doesn’t recognize their divinity is second- and first-nature.
Maya was so many things to me. In all honesty, I’ve always felt her love for me. Her acknowledgement of my beauty and her gentle but blatant call for me to see it, too.
We first met 25 years ago. My parents are performers and educators of African American heritage and culture. I am told that it was the last day of February 1990, a busy month for people like my parents. Dr. Maya Angelou was speaking at Columbia College in Columbia, SC. I was newborn at the time and traveled with my parents everywhere. My mother says Maya entered the stage singing, “I Open My Mouth Unto the Lord.”
“She was wonderful,” my mother tells me. After she spoke, the audience flocked to the reception where they believed Maya would be. My parents, being performers, thought that maybe the poet laureate would be tired and remain backstage. Much to their delight (I don’t know how they got backstage), she was. “She was so gracious,” Mom continues. “She was tired. But she said, ‘What a beautiful baby!’ and asked to hold you.” (‘You’ being Me, the 4-month-old.) I’m told Maya held me in her arms, and I threw up all over her copper sequined gown. She said, “Awwwww…” — not “Ewwww!” — and handed me back to my father.
Of course I don’t remember this exchange. But, yep, I threw up on Maya Angelou. THE Phenomenal Woman. Ever since I was first introduced to her writings, a phenomenal woman is exactly who and what I’ve wanted to be. Not even fully able to grasp the concept of my own phenomenal self (still struggling with that), I’ve known that Maya had laid out a simple blueprint. She’d epitomized self-love. Not conceit. Pure confidence in your divinity… In what makes you a woman… Why your presence makes eyes widen and minds wander. The light inside that you must claim and radiate. It’s undeniable. I heard her steady, loving cadence as a soundtrack throughout my adolescence. Read her words. Admired her poise. Her wisdom. Blushing, chest swelling, faced with her raw poetic honesty. I visited the Unity Church after hearing her speak of the strong love she realized in that community.
Unlike Maya, I’ve struggled with telling my truth. I’ve had trouble wearing my crown. Seeing myself. Getting out of my bed. For years I’ve navigated through a thick darkness I can’t really name but am all too familiar with.
Those who love me–who see me–keep encouraging me to write. That’s all I hear.
Perhaps I’m afraid of what liberation feels like. So I haven’t written. I just observe. Terrified to truly feel and even more scared no one will validate my feelings.
When I first called my mother on a break at work, all teary-eyed and snotty-nosed after hearing the news that Maya was gone–it was her response that called me back:
“What we love about Maya was her fearlessness to tell her truth,” my mother expressed. “A young woman. Talking about diamonds at the meeting of her thighs. Such confidence.”
Telling her truth. Those words stuck out. She told her truth and lived 86 years. She didn’t melt or crumble under perceived weight of her honesty. Through terror and abuse, abandonment, a whore house, Maya rose and wielded her truth.
I’m mourning her. I have to. I’ve always considered her a member of my Great Cloud of Witnesses. And I’m calling on her courage. I’m looking through her eyes. I’m following her light through this dark cloud.
As a Gullah woman—the descendent of enslaved West Africans brought to the southeastern coasts–I’m trying to hold on to Maya’s words: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave…”
I have a responsibility to rise. And to keep rising. For Maya. And for all of those who fought before me… Each and everyone who kept getting up in hopes my life would be better. All of those who didn’t survive.
I have a responsibility to tell my truth and act as legs for the next generation.
Upon completion of this piece, I’d hoped to experience the wondrously clear daybreak Maya describes at the end of I RISE. I don’t. Not yet.
I wanted to write: Something Strong. Something Convicting. Something Inspiring. Honoring Maya, I have written.
I don’t know if my words have reached my goal. I just know I miss her.
This was originally published in June 2014.