“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” -Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
If you were ever blessed to be in the same room with her, you knew she was magic. And when she spoke the room stood still, held breath, knees touching knees, eyes begging for silence to keep from missing even a whisper of her words, beckoning attitude, calm, wisdom and brilliance all at once. Her words were generous gifts she shared abundantly, painting pictures with poems on the tip of her tongue. She was like a grandmother cipher, a master teacher, a wonder. She was a warrior and a survivor, an overcomer and a leader. Her politics would not allow her to be “put in her place.” Instead she made space where none existed and started telling blackgirl stories when they weren’t yet in style. Her righteous resistance and loving demeanor, recorded in six autobiographies, made you want to know her. She felt like a family member, a friend, a twin. In her I saw all the beauty of black womanhood I was attempting to capture and I knew if I could just make it to the room (where she was), I would be forever changed. I was. I felt her presence and I will undoubtedly feel her absence.
I witnessed the gift that is Maya Angelou in person on January 7, 2008. I was a graduate student at University of South Florida and she was the first speaker in the spring series. I arrived early but was still seated what felt like one hundred steps from where she sat on the platform. There was no backdrop or staging, she sat in a chair on the stage with a microphone and notes that she only used intermittently. She wore a black gown that fell somewhere around her ankles and the fabric glistened under the strobe light making her body visible from a distance, her face somewhat of a blur, her voice a statue standing taller than everything else. Even if I couldn’t see her I could hear her and that was enough. I closed my eyes to see her words as she said them, each one decadent and delicious, intentional and thoughtful. She was a writer in every sense of the word, even in how she spoke.
There was something anointed, something spiritual, something magical, something memorable, something beautiful in her voice, melodic and piercing. Rhythmic expressions and lovely language danced on her lips like a love song. I could have sat there all night, listened to her all night, she could have read the phone book and I would have been no less satisfied.
Maya Angelou’s life represents resilience and possibility. From the traumas she experienced as a child, (one of which that literally took her voice away) to the struggles and sacrifices she made to survive, she never faltered and never stopped smiling that wide mouthed, all teeth, generous lipped smile. She smiled that night. And I cried.
That one time, that one opportunity I had to be in the same room with her I wrapped myself up in the love she poured out and the wisdom she displayed. I cried while she spoke even though I didn’t know why I was crying. I couldn’t help it. It was like catching the Holy Ghost or being startled awake. She had me all in my feelings, all in my heart, all in my head, all at the same time. I was taken by her and challenged to be better.
She spoke about diversity and inclusivity, a concentration I was beginning to situate in my own work (in fact, when I gave the last lecture at my university a few months ago, I ended with a Maya Angelou quote about empathy unconsciously channeling her energy from that/our night).
“I’m a rainbow in somebody’s cloud,” she said, as she prepared to close her speech. “You are a rainbow in somebody’s cloud,” she said, and the pause before and behind her words left us all greedy for more. The applause was immediate and raucous and as I stood, standing on my own clouds, standing on my own potential for possibility, standing on her shoulders and experiences and love, I had a profound moment of recognition, and saw myself with Technicolor clarity. I was (or at least had the capacity to someday become) a rainbow in somebody’s cloud, and she was a rainbow in mine.
When I heard of her transition it felt like I lost someone with whom I have frequent conversations. She was there when I began consuming black woman literature. She was there when I was writing a dissertation about black women, who were growing up in North Carolina when she was growing up in Arkansas. She was there when I decided to memorize Phenomenal Woman because I needed a script to help me develop self-esteem. She was there and has been there every time I need to read a blackgirl’s song.
I never met her but I feel like I knew her. I will miss her magic, but will continuously feed on the meat of her words.
Mama Maya, your life was a gift to the world. Thank you for being such a generous spirit. For sharing your lived experiences, from the joys and wonders to the dirt under your fingernails. Thank you for telling the truth about yourself so that we might be brave enough to follow suit. You were beautifully human and made it reasonable for blackgirls like me to see possible impossible things. Thank you for writing brilliantly, thoughtfully and liberally for so many years, and leaving us with so much wisdom. Thank you for demonstrating what a life lived purposefully, intentionally and elegantly looks like. You are a rainbow in my cloud!
Here are a few of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes (including the opening quote on the page):
“When somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
“I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition.”
In tribute, please share your favorite quotes, lines, memories or work of Dr. Angelou in the comments section.