I can’t believe she’s gone. Maya Angelou was such a strong presence—a force—someone you expected to walk this earth forever. For me, her words were a life changer. For millions more, her advocacy for social reform made her a game changer.
I was fortunate to witness a presentation by Dr. Angelou at Westminster College’s Orr Auditorium in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. The presentation took place on a rainy night in March of 1995—a very pivotal time in my life.
For me personally, the 90s brought with them a deep restlessness and unquenchable search to find out who I was. Becoming a mother at 17 stripped away a very necessary period of self-discovery. Circumstances demanded I assume a role when I hadn’t a clue as to who I was as a person. I hadn’t so much as discovered my likes and dislikes or interests, let alone determined what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” It was during this time that I discovered the force (and fierceness) of Maya Angelou. Her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, ignited a fire within me. The strength and fortitude with which she weathered a traumatic childhood spoke to my heart before settling deep into my soul. Her words allowed me to see that I was not to be defined by my circumstances. I voraciously devoured her subsequent books: Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, And Still I Rise, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes. I couldn’t read them fast enough. Her books caused people to explore what it means to be human. They made me explore what it means to be a woman.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
~Maya Angelou, “On The Pulse Of Morning”
I lost my mind when I learned Dr. Angelou would be giving a presentation following a ceremony in which she would receive an honorary degree from Westminster. And she did not disappoint. Dr. Angelou’s voice was rich and deep. Her strength permeated the venue. Almost twenty years later I remember it as if it were yesterday. But then again, why should I be surprised? Maya Angelou had a grace and warmth that touched everyone. She was of course, “a woman / Phenomenally.”
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
~Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”