Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!
That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!
She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.
I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.
(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)
I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?
I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.