On Being a Black Girl Called 'Maya'

The story goes that they couldn’t agree on what they were going to name their baby girl.

If I were to be a boy, it was decided my parents would name me “David,” after my father. But if things were to go the other way, as they did, the decision wasn’t so simple. As it turned out, I have two middle names in addition to my first, each time named for a woman of influence: the prophet Muhammad’s wife; my grandmother; and, after attending one of her speaking engagements, Dr. Maya Angelou.

As a little girl, Black women would beam when I’d introduce myself, seeing something I did not.  “Oh, your name is Maya! Like Maya Angelou?” they’d say. It was the first indication that my name meant something to somebody, even if it didn’t mean so much to me. (There was a long time that I wanted to be called something less distinguishable, like “Nicole,” if only because I childishly prioritized the availability of the personalized novelty merchandise at the store.) But these exchanges happened often enough where they indicated to me there was some sort of spoke blueprint for greatness at the very mention of my name, even if I’d done nothing to architect it myself.

And until my early teens, my familiarity with Dr. Angelou’s work was limited to the copy of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, a book that was illustrated with images by Jean-Michael Basquiat. It sat on our coffee table in the living room. Sitting back on the chair, feet not yet touching the ground, I wondered what it was about life that could make things so frightening that anybody would need to write about it.

I remember when my name first became recognizable to my peers; Dr. Angelou became the first African American and the first woman to serve as an inaugural poet in 1993 when President Bill Clinton went into office. “You’re named after her?” they said. I nodded, and beamed a bit.

The real reason that I became a writer because when I was a kid somebody made a connection between my name and my capacity. At the time, I was blabbering on and on about becoming a retail buyer for Bloomingdale’s in New York (ah, the things we dream!). Then someone read an essay I’d written and told me quite matter of factly that I was a writer.

“It’s who you are. It’s in your name,” he said.

With hindsight and full knowledge of the cliche that swells that anecdote, I don’t know if that conversation was causal or circumstantial but it opened a door. The idea of being a writer in the same way that some people were doctors or lawyers or teachers was new, and foreign, and exciting, despite the fact that I had always been a voracious reader. That year, seventh grade, was the year we read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in school. Dr. Angelou’s would the first of many times I would read a Black woman’s story, told in her own words, and realize the power of my own voice. And my name.

It was with Dr. Angelou’s autobiography that I was introduced to the legacy and tradition of what it means to Black and female and have something to say. Intimidated by the prospect of being able to join the ranks, what was first a pen then became a torch. The power of Black female protagonists, narrators, poets and authors was seductive. They knew my story before I lived it. Even in their hurt, even in their confusion, they were noble.

The Bluest Eye. Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Color Purple. No Disrespect. Dr. Angelou’s “A Conceit.” Gwendolyn Brook’s “The Mother.” Different stories, yet all the same. All pieces of my own, put there before the world, introducing me over and over again.

Around age 14, at the dawn of awkwardness and uncertainty, I recited Dr. Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” during an assembly. With practice, the words danced from my mouth as if I wrote them myself; it molded me with an invisible hand.

The older I got, the more I read. I thought back to the book that sat on the coffee table and knew why Dr. Angelou was unafraid. Suddenly, I understood that, the power of my name, and the strength that comes when somebody understands you. And suddenly, life didn’t frighten me anymore, either.