Following Maya Angelou’s death today, the wave of media attention may prompt many children to ask, “Who was Maya Angelou?” My answer might be, “She was all of us on our best day ever.”
Another answer might be that at times in her life Ms. Angelou was also “all of us on our worst day ever.”
Because she had so many varied experiences in one lifetime Ms. Angelou, through her body of work, will forever stand in the generational gap between parents, children, grandparents, and those wise and sometimes sassy elders we call “Aunt,” but who are of no relation to us by blood.
She was the girl many parents might be tempted to warn their teens against getting friendly with because of her often wildly unconventional, unrepentant ways.
Having read Angelou’s biographical works, I know my mother would have struggled with the idea of me hanging with someone who dropped out of school at age 14, only to return to high school at 17 to finish her diploma and give birth to her son a few weeks after graduation.
As a 17-year-old single mother, Angelou waited tables to support her child. For a brief time, as an adult, she even filled the role of madam in order to assist mistreated prostitutes and earn money.
Because of her rocky path, her solid foundation was fortified by instances of trial, error, and triumph, turning her into a voice across generations.
Angelou is the well I go to each and every time one of my sons brings home a girl who’s a rainbow-haired “wild child,” or has a friend I am tempted to disapprove.
In those moments, in the breath I draw before saying something I may regret, I look at my refrigerator where a magnet reminds me of Angelou’s words, “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."
Reading that quote I recall all the times, 25 years ago, when my mother-in-law made me feel unwelcome in her kitchen, living room, dining room, on the porch, and down the hallway.
Today my mother-in-law and I love each other and get along like a house on fire. She is truly my second mom and a girlfriend I can tell my troubles to.
Angelou's first autobiographical work "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," was published in 1969, when I was 4, and yet I have always felt as if Angelou were my contemporary.
I began reading Angelou because her work spoke to me after a tumultuous childhood with an alcoholic father, which led to me dropping-out of high school at 16 to attend a community college and study music, as Angelou had done in her early years.
I was a white vocal jazz major who grew up to be an author and writer instead.
During college, Angelou’s books were in my backpack as I biked between two jobs, one at a McDonald’s, and the other managing a dry cleaners, while living with a totally inappropriate young man.
At the time, I was a wild child with “Chinese Laquer Black” bobbed hair.
While my hair is now back to brown – with a bit of silver threading through it – and I try and walk a narrower path as the mom of four sons, a simple magnet with her words can still draw back my spirit when it wanders off to worries I once swore I would never have about fitting in or being politically correct..
As an adult who often volunteers to help children, I have handed out many copies of Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” from the 1978 book of poetry "And Still I Rise" to kids.
Most times the teens and tweens return to me having their air of defeat or self-destruction replaced with one of determination.
These are Angelou’s words that will forever speak to children, saucy teens, moms like me, grandmothers and many others, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or age, because the words themselves are ageless.
When someone gossips about me I recall:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise."
When the mortgage is due and the bank balance is low, yet I try and make a joke with the hostile collection guy on the phone and he reprimands my “attitude,” I want to tell him her words:
Do you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
As a teen when my father would abuse my mother, or when I was in college and he called night and day to torment me, I knew I was not alone because Angelou understood:
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.
...Up from a past that's rooted in pain
No matter that my racial composition is Caucasian, I know what it is to be a “black ocean” dark and deep:
leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Angelou once said “I believe each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory."
She returns to her “creator” leaving a trail for us to follow to glory with our children and grand-children.