The silent little girl who became a giant
“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
“I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.’ How can you give something you don’t have? There is an African saying: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
“Courage is the most important virtue. Without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest without courage.” ―
— Quotes from Dr. Maya Angelou
By Stephan Drew
In the almost 58 years that I’ve been alive, I have had many teachers.
My parents were the first and most important. Then family, church members, friends and every teacher I had in school. There are those who stand out as great and those who may have simply filled a gap in my studies.
They all took part in my lifetime education and, through their wisdom, helped me grow into the person I am today. And there is one person I never met but I have read many of her works and listened to a number of her recitations. Her name is Dr. Maya Angelou.
She didn’t grow up in an affluent family nor was she, as a child, ever expected to attend college. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in April 1928, she came from a broken home.
Her mother and father didn’t live together and little Marguerite spent most of her childhood living with her grandmother, who owned a country store in Stamps, Ark. When she was 7 and a half years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her and threatened to kill her brother if she told anyone.
Her brother, Bailey, was the most important person in her life and she knew she could never allow him to be hurt. She was hospitalized and her family begged her to tell them who had done this but she remained silent.
Bailey asked her to please just tell him and no one else. She explained that if she told, the man said he would kill him. Bailey, who was 9 at the time, said, “No, he won’t kill me. I won’t LET him!”
Because her brother was older than her, Marguerite thought maybe he was right. So she told him who it was. He told their family and the man was arrested. He was put in jail for one day and one night and then released.
Five days later, the criminal’s body was found, apparently kicked to death. Marguerite thought because she had spoken his name, she had somehow caused his death.
In her child’s mind, she realized that words had true power. In her own words, she said, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
So she decided not to speak and remained silent for five years. During that time, her grandmother told her that, even though some townspeople called her “idiot” and “retarded” for not speaking, she knew Marguerite wasn’t stupid or mentally handicapped. She told her, “Baby, when you and the good Lord get ready for you to speak, you will speak. You’re going to be a teacher, my darling, and you’ll travel around the world educating people.”
Marguerite didn’t answer and, in her mind, she wondered how this old woman could be so ignorant. There was no way she would be a teacher or ever travel around the world.
But grandmothers often see things that we can’t even imagine. Before she was 12, Maya (her nickname) had a teacher who told her, “You will never love poetry until you speak it. Until you feel it move through your mouth and across your own lips, you will never love it.”
That teacher, Bertha Flowers, acquired numerous books for her. Maya read and memorized them all. Entire sonnets of Shakespeare, the works of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. She loved Edgar Allen Poe so much, she called him “EAP.”
At 14, she attended California Labor School. At 16, she became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She had a son, Guy Johnson, when she was 17. In 1951, she married Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician and aspiring musician and they divorced three years later.
She took modern dance classes, met famous dancers and choreographers and learned from them. She danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, going by the name of Marguerite Johnson or “Rita.”
While performing at the Purple Onion, she changed her name to Maya Angelou (her nickname and her former husband’s last name). She also started performing in plays and musical shows on stage. In 1954 and 1955, she toured Europe in a production of “Porgy and Bess” where she got significant reviews. At this time, she also started learning the language of every country to which she traveled.
In 1959, she met novelist John Oliver Killens and he convinced her to move to New York and concentrate on her writing career. In 1961, Maya travelled to Cairo, Ghana and South Africa. During the rest of the 1960s, she worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin, among others.
She was in Los Angeles during the Watts Riots of 1965 and, throughout the rest of her life, she devoted her time to uplifting the oppressed and educating the oppressors. During her lifetime, she wrote seven autobiographies, 18 books of poetry, three personal essays, two cookbooks, six children’s books and seven plays.
She also acted in over 11 plays and wrote and/or produced 14 specials for film and television and appeared in countless others. She also received 55 honorary doctorates for her work and the inspiration she passed on to others.
In 1993, she was chosen to write and recite a poem for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Called “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem is a call for all races, creeds and cultures to come together and begin a new day in our relationships with each other.
Her work has always been about inclusion. And she always did a magnificent job. Some of her work may be thought of as “ungrammatical” or “rough-spoken” but each and every word perfectly captures the theme she is presenting at the time. It might have been said in a “nicer” (more grammatical) way but there is absolutely no one who could say it “better.”
Angelou could capture the essence of words and speak them in such a way that your very soul would tremble. She didn’t “put on airs” but she was a dominant personality in every conversation in which she took part. When she spoke, her listeners knew there was true power and life experience behind each word she said.
When asked how she kept toxicity from seeping into her life, she said, “Just don’t allow it. I do not allow any racial pejoratives to be spoken in my home, no matter what race they’re talking about. I’ve heard some say, ‘Well, I can say the ‘N’ word because I am one and I have that right.’ No, you don’t. It’s like poison. If it was poison 100 years ago, it’s still poison today.
“If you go to the drugstore and buy poison, it has P-O-I-S-O-N written on the vial. You can put that poison in an expensive crystal goblet if you want. But no matter how you dress it up, it’s still poison. Don’t bring that to my house. Don’t put your poison on me. I don’t want it and I won’t have it!”
She spoke with and had close friendships with rebels, dissidents, presidents and prominent world leaders. She traveled the world, learned numerous languages and, just as her grandmother predicted, she educated millions of people around the globe.
When asked what one thing is most important to remember about oneself, she said, “The secret truth about each person is what you believe and how deeply you believe it.
You may make a good impression and spout platitudes all day long but, do you stand by your words so firmly that you would be willing to give up your reputation, your business, your family and home, perhaps even your life for your beliefs?
Just how deeply do you believe in them? That is the secret question every person must ask themselves. That is the real truth of who and what you are.”
She was such a forceful power for good and she left a huge void when she passed away. I never met her or even corresponded with her. But, by watching and listening to her, I learned alot about self-love and true confidence in adversity.
Thank you, Dr. Angelou, for all you have done, not only for me but for millions around the world. You have left a legacy that will never be equaled. May you rest in peace, knowing that your gift to humanity will never be diminished and your star will shine brightly until the end of time.