When it was reported that Maya Angelou died yesterday, instantly the Internet became a memorial of her words and photos of a life that spanned nearly nine decades. And all of those kind words were well deserved. Any writer worth her ink must pay homage to Maya Angelou, for her courage coupled with her literary dexterity.
But this isn’t about Maya Angelou.
My sister sent me a text saying with the deaths of both Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela, at the same time I have a child gestating inside of me, she felt like an era of black greatness was coming to an end. Who will take their places or carry their torches, she questioned. And after a few moments I thought, well us of course.
Yes, Maya Angelou wrote pretty words. Her poetry could be morning mantras or salves to calm erratic days. But her story was also a call to action to us, black women particularly, to make art from the darkest secrets we hold. There would be no phenomenal woman had it not not been for the sexually abused child. There would be no universal mother figure had it not been for the unwed teenage mother. There would be no great and distinctive voice had it not been for the one silenced for years in her youth.
Maya did her part. She danced her way around the world with a growing boy on her hip. She unearthed the secrets of her childhood to critical acclaim. She was a friend of both Malcolm and Martin. When she said, “I am the dream and the hope of a slave,” that wasn’t poetry. That was the truth she realized as an artist with a voice of impact. She leaned in before the buzz term had any meaning. She had play daughters and sons sprinkled across the globe, including Oprah. She was smart, sexy, versatile, transparent, ugly and beautiful. She was a living epistle.
Maya didn’t give her life to her art for us to cry at her death. She did her job, I’m sure in the face of fear and possible ridicule. She had the audacity to think someone wanted to read the coming of age story of a little black girl. She had the nerve to want to see the world with no one to watch her son. She answered that 3 a.m. beckoning to write, and said yes to opportunities that seemed inconvenient. I’m sure as she approached our Creator, He welcomed her to eternity with open arms and thanked her for a job well done. Please, don’t feel sad for her.
In the millions of words Maya Angelou left behind, I hope that we can find instruction on how to take our broken lives and turn it into something beautiful. For those who were victims of abuse, I hope you find the validity to pursue your dreams. For you who find yourself with children and no spouse, I hope she inspires you to think globally. For you with an excuse not to create, I hope you realize she gave 100% at a time with less platforms for black women than we have now. I hope she inspires you to control your narratives. I hope she has allowed you to embrace the fact that you are wise, yet to still like to shake it, and you aren’t a whore.
Maya Angelou had her time, and left a legacy that the world will glean from for generations. And we have that same opportunity. Maya Angelou was made from the same stuff we were. She said yes. She took her chances. She created. Our life stories need not be perfect. They just need to be told.
The millions of Maya’s born from her pain have been empowered to speak though the world tells us to be silent. Maya Angelou’s death has beckoned us, the writers, the poets, the dancers, the singers, the artists, the philosophers, to speak our truth. No more excuses. She said every word she needed to say. Now it is our turn. The torch awaits us.