Some of us choose to tell (or read) the stories between the lines, where the truth lives, without pretense and uncensored. Maya Angelou was such a writer. She was such a woman. For Angelou, there was no shame in having been a victim, no weakness in having to struggle to survive and find her way to a quality of womanhood perhaps only arrived at when the dues of wounding and injustice are paid. She didn’t hesitate to say the journey wasn’t easy, but with singular grace and courage, she rose above the abuse and humiliation she suffered to affirm her dignity as a woman. And did she ever!
I love this quote. As they used to say: You go girl!
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
“Womanism” — a term she used in contrast to “femininism,” which Dr. Angelou graciously called humorless (I would think angry) and lacking an appreciation of love (or at least, I think, a devaluing of romance) — represented qualities she felt commonly attributed to black women: strength, commitment, sexual fulfillment, and complete equality with men. Healing and growth, she understood, came from rejecting blame and ridding oneself of guilt, loving instead of hating, and living each day, day-by-day, firmly in the present by letting go of the past and, ultimately and unreservedly, forgiving. (In future posts I will say much more about the healthy benefits of living life mindfully by focusing on the present moment.)
It’s easy to say that Maya Angelou was a “Renaissance woman.” In addition to her multiple autobiographical works, she published ten collections of poetry, wrote scripts for the theater, composed music for films and musicals, sang and danced (including for major companies and off-Broadway productions), and acted in films. She won an Emmy (for a role in the TV mini-series, Roots) three Grammy’s (for spoken-word albums), and in 2011 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was active alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement, was a university professor of American studies, and even wrote gourmet cookbooks. Good grief! And through it all, she never lost her warmth and humility nor the integrity she derived from honest truth expressed without shame. To say the least, she is to be admired and remembered.
In the past few days, quotes exemplifying the wisdom she so eloquently yet simply expressed have filled pages on the internet, the press and broadcast media. Here are just a few I’d like to share with you because they relate so clearly to some of the key themes expressed in my novel, The Flying Girl:
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain. I rise . . . I rise I rise I rise.”
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
“A Woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing. She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination prepared to be herself.”
“She sang her story like the blues,” wrote Annie Gottlieb about Angelou in a 1974 New York Times review. It’s no wonder that Krista, the jazz-singing survivor of sexual wounding who is the main character in my novel, The Flying Girl, is at one point in the story reading and identifying with Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, was Angelou’s first and brutally honest telling of her painful years from three to seventeen in Alabama and San Francisco. As The Flying Girl begins, it is 1969 and Krista is arriving in San Francisco, struggling to overcome a painful history and manifest her womanhood, sexually as well as spiritually. No wonder Dr. Angelou’s words resonate deeply for Krista.
May Angelou died on May 28th, 2014. Rest in peace, Maya. I know you will.