Dr. Maya Angelou’s words decorate the walls of our classrooms, fete the ceremonies of presidents, and illuminate the conscience of a nation. By formal account, she was a poet, playwright, memoirist, dancer, singer, stage actress, streetcar conductor, single mother, college professor, civil rights activist, and cultural humanitarian. But, perhaps most importantly, she was ours.
With the rare clarity that comes from lived experience, Maya Angelou captured the curious reality of the American black girl; the girl who awakens to a home she is told, is not hers. The paradox of being born black and female in America is that although you are as quintessential to the American story as the slave trade that brought your ancestors, by virtue of your existence, you are displaced. Despite birthing the generations whose unpaid labor sustained the American economy for more than a century, it is the black woman who lives as a foreigner in her own home. As the social construction of race animates and personifies blackness, the color of her skin eclipses the content of her character. Thus historically, it is the African-American woman’s blackness that shrouds her femininity and obscures her nativity. It renders both her beauty and her personhood, foreign. She is the acquired taste. And as she awaits her palatability, she remains in the shadows.
But as Maya showed us, the shadow is not just a vacuous darkness left in the background. It is the evidence that you exist, that you were here, and that the sun shone down on you. By embracing the lived experience of our blackness, Maya helped us embrace the light in which black women were cast into existence. We were aching to be seen and see us, she did.
The lens with which Dr. Maya Angelou captured the African American experience was transcendent. She humanized us. As she recounted the lives of her mother, brother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, she gave living testimony to the pain, humor, love, and tension that pulses beneath the surface of American life. She made survival a virtue and cast black girls as repositories of the national wisdom held in the seemingly insignificant happenings that pepper everyday life. She refused to trivialize the lives of children, the poor, or African-Americans, despite the fact that they so often go unnoticed or uncelebrated. Revealing our inner truths like nursery rhymes, exclaiming our bountiful beauty with exacting wit and unwavering reverence, she told us of a woman, who was once a girl, who was once a black girl in the south, who was once invisible (and mute). Rendering us visible with the audacity of her authenticity, she offered us voice and if you are like me, you took it.
Truly good prose looks into the deepest crannies of human experience, and reveals you, to yourself. By bravely telling her story, Maya told our story. Standing in a line of Sojourner Truth’s, Phillis Wheatley’s, Gwendolyn Brook’s, Rita Dove’s, Audre Lorde’s, Nikki Giovanni’s, Alice Walker’s, and scores of other black female poets, playwrights, and authors, she shone a light onto the very soul of us. I know why the caged bird sings. It sings because Maya lifted its very existence, that it might know it was made to soar.
Maya once said that the greatest thing you can say to another person is thank you because thank you is what you say to God. Where words fail to capture the depth of my sorrow for her loss and the extent of my gratitude for the life she lived and the words she left us to live by, I say, Maya, oh sweet Maya, thank you. You will be missed because you were always ours.