As a young girl who only felt the comforts of solace and strength while writing, the words of Maya Angelou gave me the courage not only to write, but to write from a place that was forbidden and somehow shamed in real life.
Surviving in real life meant that I was to “be seen and not heard,” even though that was not a direct order, but strongly implied, as I was told to hush up whenever any hint of real feelings were expressed, desired or fought for.
But the words of Angelou changed the essence of who I was from the first moment I sat down to read her breakthrough book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”
To quote a excerpt from the book that is particularly moving to me:
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.”
As a 13 year-old girl of mixed race, I will always remember “feeling” her words and stories as if she were speaking directly to me, as if to say, “Your story is important too, and writing is the gift you can give to yourself.”
She was different than the other authors I had been reading as a child. Before I discovered her candid and hauntingly touching stories, I had been reading the works of Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemingway, along with Jean- Paul Sartre and Franz Kafka.
As my father is a Russian-Jewish artist, and mother a Japanese costumer (both of whom suffered through the Great Depression and World War II with their own sufferings of racism and bigotry), I had been raised on the extremes of existentialism and poetry, and taught that creativity was our religion and only salvation, as long as one kept their hands and hearts to themselves.
But Angelou changed my perspective on all things. She taught me that it was not only okay to speak one’s mind, but necessary and inherently integral if one were to live an authentic life.
“The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
After I had wept pent-up tears for reading this passage, as I was not allowed to cry in my home, I was able to sit still with her words of authenticity.
One might ask, “What is so authentic about writing how one feels like a free bird who was once caged, unable to fly and uncertain about anything that was once only shrouded in fear, doubt and pain?”
As I writer and a young woman who has suffered deeply, I discovered that authenticity only comes from the courage to be vulnerable with one’s words, always honest and simple—and even exotic and loose.
An authentic life means that you should stand up and speak your mind, especially if what will be said and written will be shocking, uncomfortable and call into question every single thing that was ever preached to you from birth.
From my own birth, I was told to be the good girl. Never mind if my heart was torn into pieces; never mind if I was mocked in the schoolyard and called a good for nothin’ half breed; never mind if a sibling abused me and I was told I may deserve it; never mind all of that.
Until I was three years-old, I comically and tragically thought that my first name was “Shut Up,” as I was outspoken and gregarious as a child, and often spoke about things that my family wanted me to keep quiet about. But something in me wanted to be heard, wanted to say what was on everyone else’s mind just the same, and even wanted to be told to “shut up,” because at least that meant I had started an honest conversation where no one else wanted to go.
“If you’re for the right thing, you do it without thinking,” Angelou once said.
Angelou wrote about her childhood and struggles with identity and belonging throughout adulthood. She gave a voice to the voiceless, who learned from her uncommon and candid style to speak up about what had happened to her and how she felt, although you never felt sorry for her.
That was her gift, being able to string beautiful and simple words together about horrible times and acts she suffered through that only made you laugh right along with her, and root for her ability to not only survive, but tell it in a compelling, unpretentious and heartfelt way.
Angelou said, “My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
You can feel her experiences alongside as you read her words, and by being able to do this, one can feel humbled and graced to be a part of her stories that, above all, bring us to all to a higher level of consciousness and awareness of just who we are, and more importantly, who we are destined to be.
Angelou’s life can only be described as colorful, mesmerizing, uplifting, inspired and inspirational, and one that can be looked at with a raw and utter respect for what a singular human being can both endure and achieve.
Born in 1928 during the Jim Crow Laws as Marguerite Ann Johnson, Maya lived with her grandmother at age three, and with her mother at about seven or eight, whom she loved deeply, despite some dramatically life-changing experiences under her guise. This included being brutally raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
After she alerted the family about what had happened, the man who raped her was murdered before he began to serve out his sentence. Angelou believed that her very words were indeed so powerful, that this was indeed the reason he had been killed, and because of that, she did not speak for more than five long years afterwards.
It was only through reading and discovering the art of literature and books that her spirits would be lifted, and her use and genius of language and voice would return.
“My seven-and-half year old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said.
Think about it. Nearly six long years in your own head as a child, not muttering a hello or a good morning for anyone to hear, listen or answer to. This must have been a period of growth, self-preservation and a resounding and hot creative space wherein she may have been thinking and writing in her head all of the incredible words that she would one day grace us all with.
Angelou once said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Angelou wrote about the rape and life-changing effects in her books and poetry, and yet told us about them in way that does not make the reader feel sorry for her. But rather, her resilience and uncommon sense of honest self-awareness was evident through her gift of autobiographical story-telling.
Furthermore, one may feel so close to her writing, it is as if you could be sitting at a kitchen table with her, as she sang her words like melodies you always sensed you had somehow heard before, but could never quite place.
In The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewed, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and wrote, “The fact that Miss Angelou is black is absolutely essential to her story, of course. And yet, her story could not have happened to anyone. Yet the fact that she is black is also entirely irrelevant. Her beauty is not in the story, but in the telling.”
Angelou would write another five volumes of books that were based on her life, all of which tangibly told the stories about her struggles and joys as a woman of substance—from being a single mother who worked countless tough and interesting jobs, to her relationships and love affairs with her different adventures and men, and her unique take on the world in which she always felt so very much a part of living.
Her second volume was titled “Gather Together in My Name,” and published in 1974. Reviewer Annie Gottlieb wrote, “Maya Angelou writes like a song, and like the truth.” She “accomplishes the rare feat of laying her own life open to a reader’s scrutiny without the reflex-covering gesture of melodrama or shame. And as she reveals herself so does she reveal the black community, with a quiet pride, a painful candor and a clean anger.”
Angelou has spoken intimately and publicly about many other amazing life experiences which only further inspired her great legacy of books and poems and plays, as all of her private and public dealings have been met with a full life-force of brevity and a presence of honest and passionate brand of soul-searching.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Angelou wrote.
These include performing on Broadway in “Look Away,” in which she was nominated for a Tony Award, singing and dancing in a Calypso band and appearing in a the mini-series “Roots,” a brief stint as a prostitute and madam; her three marriages, and her passionate role as an international activist for civil and human rights.
Although Angelou has received more than 30 honorary degrees, numerous doctorates and has even been referred to as Dr. Angelou, the beloved author never attended college, even though she taught American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
Maya Angelou became largely known to the public when she was asked to write a poem for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She delivered her poem called “The Pulse of the Morning”:
“The Pulse of the Morning”
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
Like many of her poems, this one too resonates with a simple profundity that speaks to any reader who is willing to “not” hide their face in the dwellings of darkness and in the sheerness of light.
Angelou’s gift of writing was not the mere semblance of shock stories about an abused black woman raised in the South; about the usual tales of hard times and only a few good and colorful times; or only about the hardness and the coldness of life just when you thought you were getting it “all right” on whatever path you were on.
“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to asses the road which lies ahead and those over which we have traveled, and if the feature road looms ominous or unpromising, and the road back uninviting-inviting,” Angelou writes.
“Then we need to gather our resolve and carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that one as well.”
Her gift is a simpler and more unique one, and one that is not often offered today, or even valued on its honest efforts and merits in the world of literature, the arts or even on its cultural essence and importance.
To be able to tell a life’s story with simplicity and full ownership is rare…but to be authentic and profound is an almost non-existing trait, and that is what makes Angelou a timeless and classic author for the ages and for people of all colors, class systems, races , creeds, ideologies and even religious affiliations.
It doesn’t matter where you were born, how beaten or not beaten down you were in life, or whether or not your experiences mimic hers throughout her volumes of vulnerable and venerable prose, fiction and autobiographical lyricism.
What matters is one can read and read and read her words, and not once count a time when you remembered turning a page, because you were lost in her stories, which might as well just be yours, because they are told at once with both a sense of human pause and surrender.
“I want to write so well that a person is 30 or 40 pages in a book of mine … before she realizes she’s reading,” Angelou once said.
As a female writer of color, I cannot say that her words have not spoken to me with perhaps more ease and power. Being told from an early age that my words were not valued, even though I was in fact crying out through a silent and a deafening wake of creativity, I felt her words like a strong storm that also eased my own waves of self doubt and urged my yearning for being heard.
All writers are born in this way. From the very first time that a book takes our breath away, we often feel so moved beyond feelings that we are inspired to write ourselves.
We find that we somehow have “finally found ourselves” through our ability to express our sentiments and emotions through words. These words have the power to heal and inspire us, but more meaningfully, they help us to desire and discover more about ourselves through the very act of writing.
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning,” Angelou said.
Being a writer does not define me. Rather, my life is defined by how I choose the words I am inspired to speak, read and write for any reader I am so blessed to have read my life’s work.
And if I am ever even mentioned in the same sentence as the great and blessed Maya Angelou, I will know that I have chosen the integral path, and I will be grateful for it.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Wiki Commons