Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
Thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
This week many marked the passing of literary trailblazer, Maya Angelou. I remember being introduced to her in my early twenties through her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her magnetic personality was irresistible and her joyous transcendence of a traumatic childhood inspiring. Her belief in the power of words was so pronounced that, as a child, she imposed a vow of silence on herself that lasted for over five years. She had been raped by an uncle. Upon discovering the crime, her family had urged her to identify the culprit. Later, after the man had served a short prison term, he was killed by another family member as an act of retribution—and Angelou felt responsible. Through magical thinking, she believed that speaking the rapist’s name had sealed his doom, which only added to the horror. Thereafter, she denied herself speech.
But during those silent years, she immersed herself in other peoples’ words, reading every book in her local library starting with the authors whose names began with “A” and working her way through the alphabet. After being coaxed out of her silence, she eventually went on to become a person widely recognized for the unique ebullience of her voice, in both song and prose.
During this past week of tributes, I heard an excerpt from a 1986 interview Angelou gave to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in which Angelou explained how she had decided she wanted to write. She described how moved she had been upon discovering Shakespeare. She recited part of Sonnet 29: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state . . . .” She explained how she had marveled over the fact that he, a middle-aged white man from another culture and century, had so perfectly captured sentiments felt by a young black girl from the American South living in the 20th century. That sense that writers have the potential to bridge seemingly disparate worlds later inspired her to find her own voice as a writer, which in turn opened a channel through which the stories of many others would flow, the intimate stories of other women of color whom the mainstream culture had not previously regarded as worthy of widespread attention (writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange).
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 of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
From “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou.