Watching the memorial service for Dr. Maya Angelou made me feel like I was attending a homegoing celebration for a great-aunt. For some Mother Maya was an amazing poet and author. Others recognized her as the wise sage who admonished Dave Chappelle to never apologize for embracing his truth. And for a few, Angelou was the out of touch elder who chastised rapper Common for using the “N word” on their collaboration, “The Dreamer.” (DISCLAIMER: If you fall into the latter category I’m giving you a SERIOUS side eye. For real.). But for me, her presence in this world seemed much more personal. Guy Bailey Johnson deemed the memorial service for his Mother “A Celebration of Rising Joy.” It was at once a celebration of her life and a time to reflect on our own.
I first discovered Angelou’s work in middle school. Even though the themes in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” were mature I felt a deep connection to the story she told of growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. I flinched when she recounted being raped by her Mother’s boyfriend. I cried when Uncle Willie hid in the potato bin to avoid the Klan. I understood how Black folks were routinely victimized by the very people charged with protecting them. It’s no secret that throughout the United States Klan leaders included sheriffs, judges, businessmen, ministers, and teachers. I cheered when the young Marguerite Johnson reclaimed her voice. President Bill Clinton reflected on his friend’s journey by saying, “God loaned her his voice, she had the voice of God.”
Maya Angelou’s voice let me know that it was OK to be a little brown girl in a place called Lynchburg, Virginia with the audacity to imagine possibilities unbound by race and geography. Her prose provided a source of refuge when I felt suffocated by societal indifference. Together my friends and I created a service organization for our high school peers called the “Phenomenal Women Coalition.” Angelou’s poem became part of our creed and guided our commitment to being young women of substance. Through her we realized that our success was an act of rebellion and the key to self-preservation. Inevitably a contestant in the local Miss Bronze Pageant would present a dramatic interpretation of “Still I Rise.” I would sit in the audience with my family and silently mouth the words; imagining what it would feel like to laugh like I had gold mines digging in my own backyard.
I vowed to someday thank Dr. Angelou in person for inspiring me. At 17 I finally had the chance— or so I thought. That year Angelou arrived at my high school as part of a citywide Black History Month observance. I was selected as one of the students who would get to speak with her. Being a nerd has its perks. I rehearsed what I would say to her a thousand times. I was determined not to come across as some naïve kid in search of an autograph. With dog-eared copy of my notebook in hand I patiently waited for my turn. But I was awe-struck. The words simply wouldn’t come. Angelou looked and me and said with that beautiful, commanding lilt, “Would you like to say hello?” I eagerly shook my head and squeaked out, “Hello?!” She smiled and took the time to nod her reassurance. I knew in that moment she realized the impact she had on me. Angelou was my intellectual rock star.
Quite literally, Angelou made it possible for me to be the first person in my immediate family to earn a four year degree. I competed in Forensics competitions in high school and earned college scholarships using a number of pieces written by Angelou. I discovered her poem, “Our Grandmothers” while trying to understand why the contributions of Black women were so overlooked in the retelling of Black freedom movements. I knew about Harriett Tubman and could recite “Ain’t I a Woman” line by line. But “Our Grandmothers” highlighted the everyday foot soldiers who forced America to live up to her promise. It is a beautifully complex poem that affirms the power of our foremothers to inspire, protect, challenge, and build nations. I have always been struck by a line from the poem that says, “When you get, give. And when you learn, teach.” How fitting that Colin Ashanti Johnson invoked that passage in the closing tribute to his Grandmother. It was through that poem that I finally realized what Angelou meant when she said we are the sum total of every experience we have had in our lives. Not just the polished, well-edited veneer that we want the world to see. But also those parts of our lives that have weighed us down under the burden of hurt, shame, guilt, fear, and disappointment. There was something deeply moving about hearing First Lady Michelle Obama articulate that in spite of having “every part of [her] womanhood dissected on the campaign trail,” she never forgot that Angelou had “paved the way for me, and Oprah, and so many others to just be our good ol’ black woman selves.” “
Last week a reporter asked me to choose my favorite Angelou work. At first it seemed like an impossible task and then I remembered her essay titled, “The Graduation.” Angelou reflects on her 1940 graduation from high school and paints a clear picture of how separate education is inherently unequal. She talks about the tattered textbooks and scant science equipment that she and her classmates shared while students at White schools had more equipment than they could actually use. Black graduates were expected to bring honor to their communities by becoming athletes, janitors, and entertainers. White graduates were encouraged to become physicians, lawyers, and teachers. It didn’t matter that Angelou and her classmates had memorized Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” or could recite “Invictus” with great conviction. Their destiny was predetermined. Even the name of schools for Black children reinforced their inferiority: Training Schools. I remember seeing my maternal Grandmother’s class ring inscribed with “Amherst County Training School” and wondering why it wasn’t called a “high school.” Black students were trained to serve society. White students were educated to shape it. That one essay helped me understand the necessity of Brown v. Board of Education better than any legal or historical text I’ve ever read. Sixty years later we are still trying to figure out how to educate students equally.
Over the last six months we’ve lost some of the greatest giants of our time. Nelson Mandela. Amiri Baraka. Vincent Harding. And now, Dr. Maya Angelou. Whether it was strategizing with Malcolm X or critiquing the misappropriation of Dr. King’s words on the DC memorial, Angelou reminded us that true joy comes from committing ourselves to some higher purpose. As we say goodbye, we give thanks for the gift of Maya Angelou’s vision and guidance. Well done thy good and faithful servant. Well done.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and punishment. Find her online @KBDPHD and kbdphd.blogspot.com.