An Ode (and Note of Gratitude) to Maya Angelou

“Maya Angelou lived what she wrote. She understood that sharing her truth connected her to the greater human truths — of longing, abandonment, security, hope, wonder, prejudice, mystery, and finally, self-discovery: the realization of who you really are and the liberation that love brings.” -Oprah Winfrey

Maya Angelou was one of the first black women of my childhood. A gift from the woman who quickly became an additional mother and permanent fixture in my life, the director of my small, all Black private school, Mrs. Jackson. A teacher who taught a love of reading and the English language but also taught Southern Black English Vernacular as a second language. From early on she shared with me the words of people who looked like me and whose histories were mine. But of all the literature, two poems stuck: Nikki Giovanni’s Ego Trippin’ and Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. Funnily enough, these two poems achieve the same thing, an intimate examination and appreciation of black womanhood. But, to me, Ego Trippin’ and Phenomenal Woman are the difference between cocky and confident. Ego Trippin’ is brazen and badass where Phenomenal Woman is quiet but self-assured. Ego Trippin’, I appreciated immediately for its cockiness and swag. But in my youth, I didn’t recognize power, precision, or quiet strength of Phenomenal Woman. And as a result, I knew Maya Angelou was one of the greats but left her work largely untouched for a long time.

Fast forward several years, with a nurtured love of reading and black literature, my relationship with Maya Angelou re-emerged out of tragedy. It was the summer before my senior year of college. I was living out my dream of being in New York (at the cost of an unpaid internship, living on the couch of a relative in Harlem with all of my stuff no more than four feet around me in any direction, broke as hell, and surviving on dollar slices and buttery cheddar bay biscuits from the Red Lobster on 125th). That summer I woke to a morning like any other until I learned the devastating news that Maya Angelou had passed. Being of the generation I am, I get all my breaking news from Twitter. And in an effort to dismiss this news as misinformation I scoured every news source only to find headlines confirming what I already refused to believe.

I immediately rushed to what has become my second home in life no matter where I am, Barnes and Noble. Her books sat on the table in the center of the floor, a space reserved for new releases and the work of late great literary icons. I approached the table and realized so much of her work was foreign to me. I knew I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings though I had never read the whole thing. But it was her collection Letter to My Daughter that caught my eyes and reawakened my relationship with her. So many of her pieces resonated with me, inspired me, and simply awed me as I delved into short vignettes filled to the brim with her powerful life story. I couldn’t afford to buy Letter To My Daughter at the time but I couldn’t put it down. From then on, every week after work I would buy a delicious (though sadly, discontinued) lemon square from the Barnes and Noble Starbucks and sit with Maya.

It was then I realized that Maya Angelou was always great but was best after I had matured, more self-aware, more ready to not only ask questions of life and love but ready to receive the answers. As I think about it, it’s no surprise Maya’s words found me as I was moving towards a period of transition, college graduation. I, like many other graduates, felt ready to move one foot out of the hallowed halls of academia and prepare to place it firmly, squarely into my destiny, all right after tossing my cap in the air. And through the struggles and triumphs of my post-grad life, I continue to find myself returning to Maya Angelou and her work. As I grow, I begin to understand with more and more confidence that life is about deciding who I want to be and what life I want to live. I can’t help but feel like Maya Angelou lived the ultimate black girl life full of success, failure, trauma, joy, family, love and fearlessness. And as I grow into life more I realize I have full access to create my story, document my story, learn, and grow just as Mama Maya did.

Writing has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while. However, I struggle deeply with vulnerability, and at times fearlessness, traits that I see as so abundant in Maya Angelou. Through her writing, I’m learning how she had to grow into herself, her vulnerability, her fearlessness and her lust for life through all her experiences. So this, my writing, my sharing is a lesson in vulnerability and fearlessness, a push to live life fully. In honor of Maya and in honor of myself. Here’s to the stories that have happened, those yet to come, and the pieces to be written and shared here in the future.

And if this is the only piece I ever share, it’s a note of gratitude to the OG phenomenal woman Maya Angelou for helping me get this far.

“I had to trust life, since I was young enough to believe that life loved the person who dared to live it.” -Maya Angelou
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