Maya Angelou was laid to rest this past weekend. I’ve always thought of her as Miz Maya. To use just her first name seems too informal, almost disrespectful, so I’ve always thought of her with the ‘Miz’ before her name. I don’t recall my age when I first came across her lovely words, but I know it was the famous memoir of her difficult childhood, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Before I’d even read the book, I was entranced by the title. Here was a secret, and she was going to share it with me – with me. This title, from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, resonates with most young people, really, feeling boxed in by society and parents and siblings. As has been said a hundred times over, it’s the powerful story of a poor black girl growing up in the American South in the 1930s. By the time I’d found I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I’d already read Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I loved that book, so I figured I’d try Miz Maya’s.
Since Miz Maya’s death last week, the section in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings where she recounts the horrific tale of her mother’s boyfriend sexually attacking her has been referred to many times. His subsequent arrest and release and murder, presumably by some of her family members, led to her decision to stop speaking for many years. Even as a child, she understood the weight of words. Words can harm and destroy, but as she learned later for herself and so eloquently demonstrated for all of us, words have also the capacity to raise us up, to comfort, and to heal.
Miz Maya’s legacy to us is that we are changeable creatures in charge of blazing our own paths. We don’t have to accept any label, whether slapped on by society or by our own thought processes. Just because we are labeled as X does not make us incapable of becoming Y. If you read the long list of occupations that Miz Maya held, you’ll see that we are only bound by what we dare to dream: dancer, prostitute, activist, mother, journalist, writer, university professor, Poet Laureate of the United States. She is proof that we can change and alter our destinies in ways that we might have been unable to envision for ourselves. Although I haven’t yet read it, I have always loved the title of another of her books, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now. In spite of the problems we encounter in our lives, isn’t it true that we’d prefer our own troubles to taking on someone else’s? This acceptance of who we are is the very foundation upon which our happiness is built.
I don’t think I’d ever heard Miz Maya’s voice until I watched her recite “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. If you have never heard her voice, treat yourself to her rich timbre, her beautiful phrasing. The poem carries such a lovely sentiment of unity and of hope. It would be Miz Maya that I would choose, if from all the famous people in the world, I could sit and have coffee and talk with one of them. In spite of her larger-than-life stature, she was firmly grounded. Here are some of my favorite of her sayings:
I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they're gone from your life. I've learned that making a "living" is not the same thing as making a "life." I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I've learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one. I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I've learned that I still have a lot to learn. 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.
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
Rest in peace, Miz Maya. The world is a better place, thanks to your presence.