Dionne Gravesande pays tribute to the late American writer and academic, Maya Angelou, and examines the impact her writing had on women across the world
The quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”, has shaped my philosophy over the last 10 years. Its author is the late and great Dr Maya Angelou, whose eyes closed for the final time on May 28th, 2014, aged 86. Maya Angelou was an African-American author, poet, civil rights activist, actress, director, playwright, songwriter and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays. She deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest literary giants of modern times. Her words were powerful and had a profound influence on women and men all over the world.
Maya survived several personal trials that defined her very character. Born April 4th, 1928, in St Louis, Missouri, she grew up in the segregated American South. For most of Maya’s early life, she existed on the very margins of society. She grew up in poverty, and survived rape and sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then murdered by her uncles. Maya recalls she felt responsible for the death, and so stopped speaking for five years. During these years she started writing poetry. Giving birth at 16, her late teens and early twenties brought more hardships, as she tried to make a living and raise a child, while having little education or training in a country that legally discriminated against her. But, from these bitter beginnings, Maya would rise and thrive to have an extraordinarily full life. By the time she reached 40, she had been a professional dancer, madam, lecturer, activist, singer and editor. She had worked with Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, lived in Ghana and Egypt, and toured Europe.
In a moving and extraordinary tribute, Michelle Obama called Maya “one of the greatest spirits our world has ever known”. Quoting Psalm 139, Michelle said Maya had taught all women that self-worth “has nothing to do with what the world might say. Her words touched people all across the globe, including a young White woman from Kansas, who named her daughter after Maya, and raised her son to be the first Black president of the United States.”
Maya’s most notable work, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, illustrates the difficulty of growing up as a young Black girl in a world that neither loves nor values Black girls. This was the first Maya Angelou book I read, and it helped me find my own voice to express my feelings about my own racial abuse. Her autobiographies and poetry urges Black women to love themselves, and to love the God who is present within them. She was very comfortable in her glorious Black skin! When Maya unapologetically calls Black women ‘phenomenal’, she disrupts those forces that attempt to rob Black women of an identity of also being made in the image and likeness of God.
Maya found real meaning and comfort in the Christianity she learned as a child growing up in Arkansas. Her deep, spiritual sensibility can be seen in her writings. In so many ways, Maya Angelou understood human behaviour, and had a message for Black women, in particular. She knew our hope, our pain, our ambition, our fear and our anger, and she assured us that in spite of it all, in fact because of it all, we are still created in the image of God. Transcending her own pain, she learnt to forgive herself and others. She lived in the hope things can and do change; she didn’t just want to be a phenomenal woman herself. She wanted all of us to be phenomenal women right alongside her. That’s powerful to hear!
Words have real power. God spoke the world into being by the power of His words, and we are in His image in part because of the power we have with words. Words do more than convey information.
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Taken from Still I Rise
Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Ask yourself, are you using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or complimenting, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools, they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiralling into a deep distress. Whatever your answer, Maya Angelou’s lasting legacy is set: she used words to build, restore and empower thousands of people across the globe. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. We salute you!