#MayaTaughtMe To Rejoice When The Caged Bird is Finally Set Free
I write to hear my own voice without being distracted by the sound of it.
I was almost seven years old when I wrote my first story, a rather staccato tale about an HIV-positive princess who, instead of pining for a prince to rescue her or marry her, decided she wanted to become a doctor and help others. My love of storytelling began when I was but a year younger than Marguerite Johnson was when her innocence was stolen from her in a brutal sexual assault by a man she was likely encouraged to trust. She spoke the truth of her experience, retribution was enacted, and she was rendered silent by the shocking enormity of it all. It was in that period of quietude that she found her voice and discovered that poetry makes its way through us and manifests itself only in ways most apropos. Marguerite eventually transcended into Maya Angelou who would go on to become one of the greatest American poets in history.
"I want to write so that the reader [...] can say 'That's the truth. I wasn't there. I wasn't the 6'0 tall Black girl, but that's the truth’,”
–Dr. Angelou in an interview with TIME magazine.
If I have learned anything from Dr. Maya Angelou, it is that nothing is more important than being honest about who you are and what you have experienced. You ought to credit everything—the good and the bad—for making you into exactly who you are in this moment, and you should feel no shame for enduring the trials through which you had little choice other than to navigate as best you could to survive. I learned that I am who I am because of all that I have lived through, those things that I both succumbed to and overcame, not in spite of them.
Dr. Angelou touched the lives of so many people, particularly young Black girls and women, whose pain she penned, bringing us out of the shadows and leaving the world no choice but to acknowledge us and accept the fact that we do matter. Once called a “pioneer of self-exposure”, Maya shared with us that she was a survivor of child rape, was a single teen mother, having her son, Guy, when she was only 16 years old. Like so many mothers in her situation, Maya did things she felt she had to do to survive and provide for her child. She went on to work as a dancer (exotic and mainstream), notably traveling with legendary Alvin Ailey as part of a duo. She was a singer, a well-traveled actress who could speak more than five languages, and she even spent a couple of years working as a prostitute. She was a teacher, from Sesame Street to universities, an activist and freedom fighter who partnered with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and she was, of course, a writer who will be known throughout history for her artistic mastery of the written word.
Image: Ben Sutherland via Flickr
She did not publish her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, until she was 40 years old. She was encouraged to commit to paper the stories she often shared with others in casual situations. She spoke with brevity in a voice that resonated deep within your soul and was felt in the tremor of your bones; she cajoled and intoxicated all those who have been fortunate enough to hear her speak. She made every word count and she never hid the horrible things that happened to her, her struggles to keep a roof over her and her son’s heads, or any of the professions in which she proudly earned a living. Dr. Angelou did not become the woman so many of us revere and honor despite being a sex worker, for example. She emerged as a timeless literary treasure because of that and all of the other pieces that contribute to her fascinating life story.
I do not always know how to respond when I am called “brave” for opening up about my experiences with sexual assault, my struggles with weight, my mental health issues, or anything else I go on about because I do not see myself as such. I do not separate myself from those characteristics or events because while they do not define me singularly, they have each played a significant role in both shaping my world view and influencing how I navigate the narrow spaces once completely closed off to people who look me and choose to live as I do-- freely. The things I have lived through in the darker days of my past now guide my approach to helping others in whatever ways I can. I write to share my life with those who need to know they are not alone in theirs.
“The truth is that we know each other and we tell ourselves we don’t. Maybe out of timidity, I don’t know, but there is a connection between human beings,”
–Dr. Angelou in an interview Hannah Mayo, for Heaven and Earth.
I am open because I have to be. I know no other way to be that feels remotely authentic. If I am not open, I fear that I will close myself off to the world, entirely, and I know all-too-well how lonely an existence that can be. I openly share my obstacles and triumphs with the hope that maybe there are a few people reading or listening who know that though they often feel trapped by secrecy, they are not alone. I open myself to ridicule, doubt, and insult, knowing that it is inevitable because the things I share are uncomfortable and when people become uncomfortable, they find ways to reject the things that make them shift in their seats. I am open because if I do not release these things, I fear the triumphs with which I proudly adorn myself will become all-too-heavy tragic crosses to bear. I stand tall at the intersections of oppression Dr. Angelou so eloquently captures in her writing and I fearlessly tell my story because it needs to be heard.
We each have a story to tell and whether the world is able to hear it or we find only enough courage to share it with the face in the mirror, these stories must be told. We each occupy a worthwhile space, and it is up to us to decide how we will best use our talents and gifts, not only to propel ourselves and get ahead, but to help and inspire others. You will not be embraced by all and there will always be those who will try to silence you-- pay them no attention. Someone, somewhere is listening to every word you are saying and is being touched by your courage.
“Try to be the best human being that you can be. Try to be that in your church and in your temple. Try to be that in your classroom. Do it because it is right to do. See, people will know you and they will add their prayers to your life. So try to live your life in way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up. It’s yours. This is your world. You make your own choices”
–Dr. Maya Angelou on Oprah Presents Master Class.