Growing up, when I got angry with my mother, she would reply, “Don’t think you’re going to grow up and write a book about this.” It was her way of joking, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write about less than my own life. James had a giant peach and Maniac Magee slept in a buffalo pen at the zoo, but I was just sad. None of the characters I loved in books were anything like me. Then there was Maya.
When I feel ashamed, I have an obvious tell: I cover my mouth. With the collar of my shirt, a scarf, or my hand. The year I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I was in the fourth grade, and I read the book from cover to cover in a near constant state of anxiety. I felt exposed, but for the first time in my life, I also felt seen, fully and without a way to cover myself. Back then, I didn’t think about the authors of what I read, just the stories they created. My books were sanctuaries. This Maya Angelou woman was inside my head, and she was telling on me.
“I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I’d hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn’t it flood the world and all the innocent people?” she writes in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, her first of seven autobiographies.
How did she know what it felt like to believe your words could do irreparable harm? Who told her that who you became in the wake of being violated was someone dangerous? At a time when I felt isolated and ashamed of how I’d been altered, between the pages of a book, I found validation. I turned the pages quickly, snatching the corners down, then returning my palm to its resting place right over my lips. Some of the words were new, but the narrative felt impossibly familiar. Someone knew. Someone saw me. More important, someone had survived the weight of her own voice.
My mother had a copy of Heart of a Woman in the top of her closet. I devoured the book, a memoir recounting Angelou’s life between the late-’50s and early-’60s, clinging especially to this line: “We are all human beings, therefore no human being is more capable of greatness than any other. If you’ve seen anyone be great, so can you. You are a human being. Nothing that is human can be alien to you.” Because she knew the struggle of the black damaged girl, and because she always told the truth, I believed her.
It took me three years of college to come to terms with the fact that I wanted to study writing. It took another year to figure out that I wanted to write nonfiction. I was terrified of the prospect. The first work of nonfiction I ever published appeared in PANK magazine. Another woman writer I admired, Roxane Gay, accepted the piece. My then-boyfriend called it “emotional porn for perpetual victims.” It was a worry I’d confessed to him in private, my fear of being labeled a victim. That he would be using that moment to hurt me was unfathomable, so I stopped talking about the publication I’d been so proud of moments before. For his sake, I went silent.
A week later, Dr. Maya Angelou was on my television teaching a Master Class. I found myself overwhelmed by the velvet-like tenor of her voice, though I was ashamed of the same chords in mine. When she spoke, I held my breath, and could only remember to breathe at the top of commercial breaks. She said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” My boyfriend and I went to dinner the following evening. I brought up an essay I was writing and watched his shoulder slump, his eyes roll, and his lips form a hard line. I saw him. I believed him.
In the last few years, I became obsessed with seeing Dr. Angelou speak before she passed away. Almost as soon as I decided, I found out she would be coming to Butler University to speak. It was a 20-minute drive from my house. I told everyone I could about it, and woke up an hour early on the day tickets would become available. As I tried to reserve them, an error message popped up saying the the venue had sold out. Students and staff had first pick. There weren’t enough to go online. My friend, Charla, offered me a seat in exchange for helping chaperone a group of Girl Scouts. I heartily accepted. Then, she rescheduled due to bad weather.
By the time the speaking engagement was rescheduled, I’d made my peace with the situation. I posted on Facebook about the event, and reiterated that I would once again be trying to attend. Within hours, a student I mentored in college reached out to me and asked for my mailing address. He worked at the university and wanted to send me tickets. Let me be honest, until they were in my hands, I could not afford to expect this would happen. When they arrived, I wept. I read and re-read them. I covered my mouth with the palm of my hand.
The night I saw her, I couldn’t stop scratching the skin between my fingers. Another nervous tic. A heavy black curtain moved on the stage, and behind it sat a smiling Dr. Angelou. She was dressed all in black, wearing her signature sunglasses, and her skin shone as if she were lighting the stage. I fell forward in my seat, my face cradled in my hands, and listened for her voice. When it came, I let the rolling timbre envelop me. I sat back and folded my hands in my lap. We were in the same room, and I felt peace.
If you’ve ever seen Dr. Maya Angelou speak, you know there’s a song she often sings to the crowd: “When it feel like the sun / wasn’t gon’ shine anymore / God put a rainbow in the clouds.”
She sang that song to me, the way she’d been singing it to us all. She was insistent that we be rainbows in someone else’s cloud, a reminder there can be lovely things in the wake of horrifying things, a voice among many voices, though never less worthy of being heard. Though she belonged to each of us, Dr. Maya Angelou was the patron saint of the damaged black girl-child. She taught us how to see and love ourselves, while validating our visibility or worthiness to be loved unconditionally. To her, our stories were not burdensome, they were necessary. She was not supernatural, though she was brilliant. She was not more than any of us will ever be, though she did more than many of us may ever do. She was deliberately and delightfully human. She can never be separate from us.
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