She was the heroine of every black girl’s fantasy, the protagonist in tale, and an epic of her own making. She lived life overflowing.
The first time I heard the deep intonations of Maya Angelou’s voice was on an advertisement for the United Negro College Fund. In a sweeping montage, her voice rang out, speak-singing one of her most famous poems, “I Rise”:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the hope and the dream of the slave.
For a gifted black child attending a mostly white school where my people’s histories were largely disappeared, Angelou’s words were like a life raft and her voice like wind, tugging, pulling, pushing me to shore. I excitedly looked up the poem and reveled in its embrace of black female sexuality, pride, and strength.
And I found more of her works, stanzas that told me to think of blackness as beauty, couplets that described its untold value, and sonnets that celebrated womanhood, wide hips, full lips, and big thighs. I memorized and performed Phenomenal Woman at school and church, using Angelou as a shield that deflected the world away.
Black. Woman. Wordsmith. Warrior.
I know she is most famous and recognized for her seminal work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but my abiding reverie for Maya Angelou comes from her verses and vignettes. To this day, I wrap myself in the sentiments echoed in I Rise when I need some encouragement, holding close her reminder that my very existence is the product of long, hard-fought battles and countless tears.
More times than I like to admit, my thoughts find their way back to an essay in her collection Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now. In it, she describes going to a bar, getting drunk, and asking a man why she hasn’t yet found lasting love despite all her exceptionally good qualities (which she lists, in detail). His answer was less memorable than her palpable pain, vulnerability, and humor. I loved her for sharing that memory, for letting me in on her hurt and aches, for never taking herself too seriously.
She brought everyone into the unique, silent confines of being black, American, and female. And she taught me that writing from my soul was a way of honoring myself and others, that putting words to the brutal everdayness of life is the most sacred of human traditions.
Angelou was literally a transnational freedom fighter. She was a playwright, an actress, a sex worker, a presidential poet, a lover, a journalist, a dancer, a rape survivor, a wife, an ex-wife, and a mother. She was the heroine of every black girl’s fantasy, the protagonist in tale, and an epic of her own making. She lived life overflowing.
I have no place to eulogize Maya Angelou on the day of her passing—I only knew her from afar. I’m just another little girl, all grown up, still nourished by her work. And my daughters and daughter’s daughters will be, too.
But I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge what her life meant to me, and to put those thoughts to words. For a woman who spent her life reflecting on the meaning of her past, this seems the best way to thank her for all she’s meant (and will continue to mean). Her work lives on even as her soul goes home. And that is the very best type of living.
“All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith.” – Maya Angelou
What’s your Angelou story?
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.