Maya Angelou entered my life at a time when I very much needed to see someone who looked like me, both in body and in spirit, doing and being something unconventional. I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and hanging onto every word. I was in my first semester of college, at Pace University in New York, and dealing with a particularly trying and debilitating trauma that had recently occurred in my life. A dear friend had recommended this text to me. I didn’t know then that it would serve to reconnect me to pieces of myself that had been silenced/I had silenced.
I felt daring as I read her words. I saw this woman speaking truths that were mine, in ways that I felt had been forbidden to me. She spoke of pain as though she had conquered it…stood on its neck and reminded it who she was in a world that would tell people who look like me and her otherwise. Maya was unapologetic as she revealed parts of her that were more easily kept covered…private…unseen. There was a communal shame associated with some of the realities that she shared and, rather than embracing that shame, she sang. Sang inside of the cage of racial disparity and cultural invisibility…she sang beautifully. Every now and then I could hear my own muffled voice adding a harmony or timidly carrying the melody while she moved fearlessly on to the next verse of our song. This was one of my first glimpses into what freedom could look like. Speaking…truth to power, words in spaces that preferred silence, poetry as activism…finding and owning my voice.
When I came to Duke University, I was a part of the last class of January Freshmen that Duke admitted, in January 1989. I had no idea that, the fall of that year, I would find out that Maya Angelou was the convocation speaker for the incoming class of freshmen. This, to me, seemed to be divine providence. I had been finding own my voice by listening to the beckoning of hers. Because of Maya Angelou, I was a phenomenal woman before I ever believed it. Because of Maya Angelou, I knew that I was the dream and the hope of the slave in spite of the intimidating voices that said that I didn’t belong here at Duke. These words and truths accompanied me through a harrowing 12 year journey that finally, in 2000, resulted in me proudly finishing my Duke undergraduate degree with my children at my side.
The power that Maya Angelou gave to words and the fact that speaking was a conscious decision for her gave me the inspiration to speak and act in activism, and social justice advocacy. The universal truths that governed her understanding of being human and loving humanity continue to remind me that there is a responsibility that comes with a poetic gifting. There is a responsibility that comes with choosing to speak and being intentional about that which you articulate for others’ consumption. That freedom is often a journey through which community is developed. That there will be struggles, difficulties, issues and pain…that there will be cages and that cages will never be a reason to stop singing.