Remembering Maya Angelou

Maya AngelouI met Maya in an auditorium, just like a lot of people have. She was on stage, center spotlight. I was in the audience, safely in the dark.

She recited her poem about diamonds between her thighs as an opener, her voice big and bold around something I hadn’t yet words for. You know the one.  I blushed.

I realized in her presence that being a writer was all about tearing back the veil between what really is, who you really are, and what precisely is the distance perceived between the two. She had courage. She tore at everything. She showed us how to do that.

Later, when I went back stage to meet her–preppy scholarship student that I was in the professional writing program–I confessed  that I was a writer and a poet, too. I looked deep into her eyes for some hint of grace. Some nod of affirmation. In her elegant hand, she held mine. My brown eyes looked into her brown eyes. What I got were reflections; kind, wise, but only little glints of me looking back.

I’m remembering Maya today. I remembered her often in the last few years, and will bring her words to me in the years to come. She’s a force. Death can’t stop her. If you haven’t read her poetry, do it. (Thank you, Dr. Shin at Baylor University, for first showing her to me 25 years ago in that oh-so-outre women’s literature class–the one refuge we had, where we could read what other women wrote.)

I call Maya’s face in front of me when I am afraid. When I am afraid of even just being myself, I can remember her resonant voice reciting this poem she wrote about how history, ours collectively and individually, can hold us back. I don’t let that happen now.

That day I met her, she was saying this out loud to me and room full of students at Baylor University in the early 1990s. She took her time to carefully form each syllable in case maybe it could help one of us (and Maya, it did).

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread 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
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

Maya, may you continue to rise…and rise…and rise. Thank you.