The first time I heard Maya Angelou’s voice, I couldn’t imagine her ever being silent. Her sound was on purpose. A cocoa rich, earthy, deep Southern guttural sound, molasses thick and sassy and scholarly and sarcastic as hell.
The former Marguerite Ann Johnson, whose celebrated I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century Black woman to reach an international audience, died on Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.
Angelou became an icon during the Civil Rights Movement, and was close friends with poets Sonia Sanchez and the late Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others. What was unique about this brilliant woman writer was her consistent work off the page. Her lifetime commitment to racial justice, humanity and arts education was undaunted.
My own journey into womanhood was led by her defiant, politically charged, feminist approach to poetry.
When I attended majority-White Catholic schools in Dearborn, Michigan in the early 1980s, Angelou’s words were psychological weapons for survival. When “Still I Rise” was published in 1978, I was in second grade. A post-Civil Rights Movement baby with Afro-puff pigtails, advanced reading abilities and unlimited access to my mother’s books, I fell in love with poems early. My mom was a speed-reader and ate books in one sitting. Her bedroom bookshelf was laced with memoirs, biographies about the ’60s, and, thankfully, the writings of Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Walker.
I was chased home and called “nigger” by my schoolmates for the first time in third grade. They chased us to the other side of Tireman Street, the dividing line between Detroit and Dearborn, where the largest population of Arabs still live outside of the Middle East. “Go home, niggers!” they screamed at my sister and I as we quickly walked (never ran) toward home, knowing our big brothers would be on the playground for payback the next day.
Seven years old. This is when girls learn how to create internal celebrations ’bout who we really are in relation to how the world sees us. This is when a feminist perspective is shaped—that moment when poetry and girlhood, lost innocence and race collide, with a few bratty White boys with sticks chasing you back to “where you belong” when you thought all along the whole world was yours.
At 7 years old, Angelou went silent after her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She convinced herself that her voice had killed him, so she stopped speaking for six years. This is the story of so many of my woman friends who were violated in their own homes without protection. This shared beginning cloaked in tragedy would become the launching pad into her place as survivor, as intellectual, as single mother, as activist, as radical advocate and voice for women’s rights.
Her confidence inside the magic of language and beautiful haughtiness brewed possibility and pride in my skinny yellow-Black girl body.
Her work inspired a necessary, unapologetic erotica that empowered us as teenage girls in the ’80s as we were finding women writers who were kept from us—bell hooks, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde and Sonia Sanchez.
Angelou’s early work propelled many of us to grow our hair natural, organize on our college campuses and become less afraid to write ourselves into existence. In the ’90s we were loud, passionate organizers, activists, and writers on the page, now equipped with microphones in the midst of male-dominated poetry and hip-hop scenes across the country.
Janet Jackson was Justice and Tupac was alive and in 1993, Angelou’s work was in the mouths of a new generation of girls through director John Singleton’s Poetic Justice.
(Who didn’t want to fall in love with Lucky?)
Angelou was a preeminent voice of feminism and power amongst young women, long before many of us understood the political and social impact art could have on institutions and politics.
For years she was the only Black woman poet’s voice I really knew, and more importantly, could understand. There was/is an accessibility in her work, which allowed her to touch the lives of girls who weren’t studying feminist theory, but simply pushing through the rite of passage of becoming a woman of color in a country that defined beauty by something other than their own reflection.
A place where simply being born a girl can be dangerous.
At 7 years old, when Angelou was going silent, so were thousands of young girls around the world for the same reason. That collective silence that connects all women who are abused, those who are told they’re not pretty enough, their voices and Black screams muted most of their lives.
This fiery young poet who read an unapologetically Black womanist poem, “Black Statue of Liberty,” at the Apollo Theater in 1995, winning over a notoriously tough Harlem audience, was also very quiet and shy in elementary school surrounded by Polish white students and nuns. That poem could not have been written by me at 19 years old if I’d never found Dr. Maya Angelou. I never would have had the courage to read my poem aloud in that space if Angelou’s work wasn’t already a tangible model for the audience.
When she broke her silence with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, despite some of the tragedy of her life story, she fearlessly carved out a safe space for us to all exist.
Today as I write this, it is still so difficult to find relevant, radical women writers’ voices in the curriculum of the U.S. Education system, even though brown women writers have won National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes.
As we celebrate this iconic writer’s voice and life, my hope for all of us around the globe is that we continue to break silences early. That we allow the essence of our girlhood to blossom into womanhood without interruption. So we can see young girls’ faces, and never imagine them silent again.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.