This was the morning the world received the announcement that Dr. Maya Angelou passed away. A larger-than-life yet down-to-earth poet of the people, Dr. Angelou is being mourned today by presidents and generals, rappers and musicians, and by the people, all of us, many of whom struggle to find our voices.
I first read Dr. Angelou’s classic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when I was 23. Throughout my youth, I’d heard her name bandied about on the news, particularly in her role as the Poet Laureate of the United States. I decided to read her to understand the world better; she has repeatedly taught me how to understand myself.
“Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.” From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The reality that its easier to act grown up instead of actually being young has become a central point in my understanding of youth today. Faced with a world of adults cloning adulthood onto children and youth, Dr. Angelou helped me understand the need to grab a hold of “wavering purpose”, which is uncomfortable and unrelenting, and actually sit with it, let it be, and learn to live through it. On the other side? PURPOSE, BELONGING, and luckily, WISDOM. What comes on the other side of false adulthood but more falseness?
It seems meager to say that Dr. Angelou inspired millions; it’s a gross understatement that does her life little justice. Dr. Angelou literally changed the world, not only with words, but with actions. She was a civil rights activist all of her life; a spiritual seeker who stayed active on her pathway toward universal engagement; and a friend to many.
I ended up reading A Song Flung Up to Heaven, along with two of her poetry collections. One of those was called Poetry for Young People, and it held this poem, called “Still I Rise”:
Still I Rise
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.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This poem holds the fire in the belly of youth throughout its mighty stanzas. Dr. Angelou masterfully gives life to the strength and glory of youth throughout it, celebrating the hopefulness, justice, and ability that makes up the hearts and minds and bodies of young women and young men. She justifies every person’s burning desires, calling us higher in our own thoughts and feelings, demanding that we hold true to our guts and demand the same of others.
Growing up in a struggling family in a depressed neighborhood, I learned the value of poetry at a young age. One of the very first poems I remember distinctly was actually Dr. Angelou’s classic, On the Pulse of the Morning, which she wrote for her Arkansas brethren Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I watched her read that poem on tv, and it left a permanent mark on my psyche. In the middle of it, she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Dr. Angelou challenged us to not live history again, again and again. I know in the deepest part of myself that we are capable of doing that. I learned that from many heroes, including Dr. Angelou. I remember her every single day because of that.
Oh, and the other heroes who I have known? They were likely influenced by her, too.