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My first introduction to Maya Angelou didn’t involve the husky, rich, wise-beyond-her-years voice that would become her signature.
It didn’t involve a book of poetry or essays.
It didn’t even involve her name.
My first introduction to Maya Angelou came in a few short but powerful lines:
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.”
I was 11 years old. It was 1994 and I was watching John Singleton‘s “Poetic Justice” on VHS in my basement.
I was a quiet and sometimes lonely preteen, but these words—and all the other Angelou poems that Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, reads aloud throughout the movie—pulled at the part of me inside that longed to write something real and beautiful, the part that longed to love and lose and feel enough of something, anything, so I could write like that.
Having seen “Boyz n the Hood” a few years earlier, I was familiar with Singleton—who sadly passed away yesterday after suffering a stroke on April 17—and quickly added “Poetic Justice” to my list of all-time favorite movies. It’s still on that list today.
But it wasn’t until years later, when I was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a freshman in high school, that I learned the name and history of the poet who wrote the words that called to me all those years before. The words that would eventually make her one of my heroes.
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.”
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, Singleton discussed how and why Angelou’s poetry ended up in “Poetic Justice”:
“I contacted her when I was doing 1993’s ‘Poetic Justice’ with Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur because I was having problems writing the poetry. I thought, ‘I’m reading these poems by Maya Angelou; why not use her poems?’ But I had to get her permission. So I met her for lunch, and we bonded and she also agreed to be in the movie.”
In that same interview, he praised the talent and experience that so many of us have come to admire:
“She knew everybody and she had so many different lives: She was a dancer, a singer, she was the first renaissance person I ever met. She had done it all.”
I’m grateful to Singleton for introducing me to a woman whose words and actions and way of showing up in the world have motivated me to write from a place of honesty. A woman whose lessons have shown up in my life again and again, and then once more. A woman who showed me how to be a strong yet gentle, powerful yet fair woman of color in a world that isn’t always accepting or inviting of those things.
And just like Angelou, Singleton’s talent and voice and storytelling will be greatly missed.
#MayaAngelou90 Ernestine Reed, Norma Donaldson, & Maya Angelou in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice” (1993) @SHAFT6816. Angelou wrote the film’s poetry & improvised her lines as one of the signifying Aunties (Aunts April, May, & June) in the picnic sequence. pic.twitter.com/pDFsqot0nJ
— Ken Anderson (@XanaduFitness) April 4, 2018
“His films broke ground. His films mattered.”
“We will miss his work and his storytelling voice.”
“Mourning the loss of a collaborator & True Friend”
“His vision changed everything.”
“He will be missed.”
— CNN (@CNN) April 29, 2019
And because this lesson is still relevant today (and because I have a vivid memory of my dad shushing us so we could listen and truly hear Laurence Fishburne’s monologue), check out the “gentrification scene” from “Boyz n the Hood.”