“What you looking at me for?”
That was the first thing Maya Angelou said to me when we were introduced in 8th grade English. And as a confused teenager struggling with fitting in, reading some girl’s coming-of-age journey was the last thing on my mind. The title was cryptically frustrating, and it did not help that the topic at hand—African Americans and their battle with racism and prejudice—was one that I found to be uncomfortable, if not boring. Being taught the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement for the past three years will do that to anyone I suppose.
Of course, I would later learn that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was not another moralistic fairy-tale that I was indoctrinated with growing up. Ms. Angelou’s violent and pessimistic description haunted me long after I had finished the book, just as her themes of sticking to your own identity and persevering through hardships continued to shape how I live. Seeing her share her story made me realize the importance of the stories themselves, the stories of others, my story, and I began reflecting deeply on who I had been until that point.
It was incredibly exciting. Because if Ms. Angelou could create something this great with seventeen years of her life, I asked myself, what other tales could be told over the span of an entire lifetime?
Unfortunately, I found the answer last week when Dean Elmore announced to everyone in the Metcalf Ballroom that Maya Angelou had passed away at the age of 86. Once I finally felt the realization that she was gone, I began to read even more of her stories. And it turns out there was more about Ms. Angelou than just the poet. There was Ms. Angelou the dancer, or Ms. Angelou the singer, or Ms. Angelou the prostitute, the teacher, the fry cook, the driver, the civil rights leader—the list goes on.
Save for the most private moments, Maya Angelou had written her entire life out for everyone to read.
It was an act that seemed gallant at first, if not reckless. We rarely open up about our darkest hours and there are plenty of moments, plenty of masks we seemingly put on for different situations. And yet, Ms. Angelou was unflinchingly honest with her imagery and description. As she wrote in the poem “On the Pulse of Morning”: ”History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
She also told me that life could be incredibly funny and serious and moving at the same time. And she did this not with what she wrote, but how she wrote it. Consider the vast variety of poems living under her name, from ”Still I Rise” to “Alone” to “Phenomenal Woman” and “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me at All.” I guess this is a clear reminder that life is very much a juxtaposition between complex, gray issues and the simple joys that we take for granted.
Such are the lessons that Ms. Angelou had taught me, just as she did with many others. So am I sad that I can’t read anymore from her now? Yeah. But a part of me is also grateful and relieved—grateful, because I had the opportunity to take in advice few people have the notion to entertain, and relieved, because when I see books upon books, pages upon pages of her words, I know that Maya Angelou isn’t exactly gone just yet.