Each day this week, a member of the Duke community will share their memories of Dr. Angelou.
I was 11 years old in the sixth grade, and I needed something new to read for silent reading time at school. Looking through my family bookshelf, I came across a tiny book that looked pretty well-worn, and its author was someone Iâd heard of before: Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My mom had written her name inside the front cover, and it looked like it was a book she had read multiple timesâso I grabbed that one and brought it to school.
I couldnât ask my mom what her opinion was on the text, at that point, because of the stage of her illness. My mother was diagnosed with brain cancer six years prior, and was in a difficult place at that point in her life. Her name in the bookâs cover was all the recommendation I needed to trust her judgment on the quality of this autobiography.
Sitting at school reading the book, I remember wondering whether this content was too mature for meâperhaps, I thought, I should choose something less heavy, like Holes or something. I remember raising my teacherâs eyebrows that I was tackling it at all. Who knows how much actually resonated with me at that point in my life, but I stuck with it, and I never forgot the power of Maya Angelouâs words. I remember trying to hide the tears in my eyes during the difficult moments of sexual assault in the text. I remember my indignation as a young, white female that this young, African American female recalling her autobiography could have faced such a different life than I had. These feelings stayed with me as I got older. Later in my life, I would read Toni Morrisonâs novels, and Iâd find myself drawing connections back to Maya Angelouâs writing. These books sparked an early anger in me, and were fundamental to my wanting to pursue work in social justice.
This book also left a connection in my head that only a sixth grader could have between Maya Angelou and my mother. That I could ever have connected my mom, a white, Jewish, Canadian woman, to Maya Angelou at all feels a little strange. But for me, I saw reading this text as a way to spend time doing something my mom had done at a time when because of her illness we couldnât do much together. My eyes following the same words that my momâs eyes had followed, reflecting on and connecting with the same moments she had read. Whenever I read Maya Angelou again in the years to come, my thoughts would always come back to my mother. I thank Dr. Angelou for being able to connect not just me and my mother, but so many women through the beautiful power of her language.
You could have never convinced me as an eleven year-old that someday I would meet the poet that had inspired me so much. Flash forward to my junior year after I was elected president of Delta Gamma at Duke, where our organization had partnered with Dr. Angelou for 20 years to bring her to campus for Freshman convocation in the Chapel.
I remember sitting with Dr. Angelou before the event in a side room in the front of the Chapel. We were left alone for a few minutes to spend some time togetherâshe could probably hear my heartbeat over where she was sitting. To break my obvious nervousness, she asked me what I was studying. I told her I was a double major in Spanish and History, and a minor in political science. âAh,â she said, â Â¿hablas EspaÃ±ol?â she asked me in a thick accent. And there it was: Maya Angelou and I were speaking in Spanish. (Little did I know, she spoke over half a dozen languages!) Sitting in that room, Dr. Angelou told me she had hoped my introduction of her wouldnât be a list of her accomplishments, as she found those so boring. I assured her mine wasnât, and that she could trust me. With my heart beating so fast and my blood rushing a million miles per hour, how could I even begin in that moment to share with her the connections in my head I had between her and my mother, that Iâd drawn courage from her for almost 10 years of my life. This moment of spending time with the poet I admired so greatly was unreal. All I could say was that sheâd have to let me know afterward what she thought of the introduction. She told me âbuena suerte,â good luck, and that she would let me know.Dr. Angelou spoke so beautifully that summer day in the Chapel. She told the freshman class, âI am yours and you are mine,â noting that she didnât live far away over by Wake Forest, and they could write to her anytime. Sharing herself with the world was Maya Angelouâs part of her power as a poet. I had considered her words mine since I first read them, and before then her words were my motherâs. Now this incredible woman was offering to share herself with over a thousand more peopleâI wonder how many letters she got following the event.
After the speech concluded, and the freshmen boarded the parade of C-1s back to East, I stepped outside with my Delta Gamma sisters and my father to meet back up with Dr. Angelou. She greeted us outside with a smile, open arms, and embraced me and said, âBecki, you were so smooth!â I could have fainted.
The world lost a beautiful mind last week, and the Duke community lost a piece that was shared with us for so long. I am incredibly privileged to have met and spent time with Dr. Angelou, a woman whose writing will be a part of me for the rest of my life, and created an eternal connection to my mother. May she rest in peace.