My childhood is peppered with memories, a litany of them. Hide-n-go seek, silly secrets and bike rides ruled my summers. I was easily a better student than any kind of athlete, and I could be outrun or underwhelming on various courts.
There was, however, one place I could go where I was untouchable as my only competition was myself, and I could stay there for hours. It was involvement with the arts, and, for me, Dr. Maya Angelou was an ambassador into this world.
In my eighth grade classroom, we watched the inauguration of former President Bill Clinton. The room was dull, following our teacher’s orders until this statuesque, smiling woman came forward. “Maya Angelou”, as she was announced, was familiar to me. I watched her recite her poem, “And Still I Rise,” several mornings before school on a particular television commercial, and, in her face – even at that age – I saw a blend of pride, beauty and power radiating from her.
Thereby, that power became a part of me, making me sit up a little straighter every time I saw her. In our classroom, there were murmurs of, “What did she say?” and “Dude, what is she talking about?” as Dr. Angelou delivered “On the Pulse of Morning,” that instantly famous inaugural poem, but I didn’t care about their criticism. I, too, didn’t understand all of what it meant then, but I was captivated nonetheless. However she achieved it, I wanted my own life to be that influential.
Years later, I heard that Dr. Angelou would be speaking at a free event in town. I had a Pavlovian-type of response, instantly smiling and registering to attend without remembering to ask any girlfriends to join me. That night, I watched my six-foot tall heroine glide onto the stage with occasional song and dance and constant instruction in her stories. We, her full audience, all laughed, cried, and learned for 90 minutes. I sat alone, high in the auditorium, beaming at the gift of that moment. She was the grandmother/aunt/sister/mother many of us always wanted, an advocate for personal responsibility, and a general for genuineness all in one.
Almost like the classic “put some Windex on it” line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Dr. Angelou’s advice was frequently given to me alongside treasured Biblical scripture and straight-no-chaser wisdom from others in trying times. When I worried during the Recession’s early days, when I wept after burying two grandparents, when I was bathed in anger after a miscarriage, prayer and wise words – surprisingly, at times, from our beloved “Ms. Maya” (my childhood name for her) – were there. I took solace in them all, and, in God, I found my footing. Now, I realize how rigorously I’m being groomed to help others do the same.
Today, I regret that I never had the chance to shake Dr. Angelou’s hand and tell her how priceless her words were to me. I consider myself among her honorary sons and daughters who simultaneously mourn her passing and celebrate her contributions. If given the chance, I would have thanked her for living honestly. From the pages of “Gather Together In My Name” and her collections of poetry to her speeches in amphitheaters, her truth resonated across nations.
Throughout the years, Dr. Angelou was exemplary at reminding us to love people past dangerous prejudices, preserve the value of family, and acknowledge the power of keeping a place within ourselves free from others’ damaging words.
Most notably to me, she never failed to honor God, and she refused to cower in the opinions that said otherwise. As with my beautiful mother and grandmothers, her influence will impact me for the rest of my life.
To everyone reading this, especially those in the Baby Boomer and the Mature/Silent generations, please know that we need you. Yes, “we” – the Generation X, Y and Z children who are sometimes mislabeled to the point that we mishandle each other – need your guidance. We know more than you or we sometimes give ourselves credit for, but, for any arrogance, I offer a collective, sincere apology. Amidst our cries of independence and surety, we still need your support.
While we may not need our hands held, we occasionally need a hand up. Of course, we understand the success ladders we must climb alone, but we implore you to tell us which rungs to avoid and pass the knowledge on to others in their ascension. Among our ranks are drug addicts, multiple divorcees, and the perpetually undecided about everything. Still, please remember that beside them, you have thought leaders, technology kings, and valiant peacemakers who drive change across the world.
We need, as Dr. Angelou provided, guiding words from you that assuage, not assault. We simply must hear the skeleton stories you’d rather hide, and we ask you to actively listen in return. Tell me, what’s best to tell your grandchildren: ugly truths or pretty lies? Certainly, it’s the former that ushers in change, tears down dividing walls and opens up space to strive for new personal bests.
Let’s find those places together. Across fields of study, broken families, and differing faiths, let’s move proverbial mountains instead of building monuments at past successes or failures and stopping there. In her 2011 episode of OWN’s “Master Class”, Dr. Angelou threaded this ideal together in a way that will forever resound: “Try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. It’s yours. This is your life, this is your world…Pick up the battle and make it a better world just where you are. Yes! And, it can be better, and it must be better, but it is up to us.”