I am overwhelmed by my experience on Sunday night. I spent an hour and half of my life sharing the same space as Dr. Maya Angelou. She commanded her audience with her poetry and her singing. Anything I say here will not justify what I heard, felt or experienced while occupying the same space as Maya Angelou.
Her story epitomizes resilience. At age 3, Maya and her brother, who was 5, were shipped to their grandmother, who lived in Stamps, AR. Do you know how she made it her grandmother’s house? She and her brother were placed on a train from California, unattended without an adult, with a wrist band that listed her grandmother’s name and the words Stamp, AR. They made it to Stamps safely, but only because various porters on the train cared enough to make certain they reached their destination. Her journey at age five is something I acutely sensed only because my own daughter is five. I believe that Maya’s journey on this train, gave birth to her own resilience for her future.
For at least four years Maya spent time with her father’s mother, her grandmother. Without warning, at age 7 her father decided to return and took Maya and her brother back to their mother’s home. It is there where Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7. She told her brother, who told the family. The rapist, Freeman, was found guilty, only to be jailed for one day and then released. Several days later he was killed, probably by Maya’s uncles. For the next five years, Maya Angelou did not speak, stating that “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…”
During this time period, she described that her whole body morphed into one big ear. She listened. All of the time. She credits her teacher, Ms. Bertha Flowers for giving her life again. Ms. Flowers introduced Maya to Dickens, Shakespeare, James Weldon Johnson, as well as others. She studied her way through high school, focusing on drama and dance. Three weeks after she graduated, at age 17, she gave birth to her only son. The period between 17 and 19 were particularly difficult, a single mother’s slide into poverty and crime.
Despite her tumultuous childhood and her struggle as a single mother, she remained resilient. Throughout her lecture last night, Maya emphasized how “To be able to go back and see how powerful your light can be on someone else’s path,” she said, “you have no idea who you will lift up by becoming a rainbow.” She continued to say that “God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us-in the dreariest and most dreaded moments-can see a possibility of hope.”
She emphasized how much each of us were alike than different. We are all human beings and as she says it, “different languages are only bridges to other people.” As she said her words, there was silence in the auditorium. She didn’t speak at a podium, but sitting down, in a lovely creme colored dress. Her smile and her humor captivated me and I was grateful to be in her presence. I leave you with an excerpt of her poem that she composed for the United Nations to commemorate their 50th anniversary. In it, I believe, you feel the theme of resilience. That we all are natural wonders of the world.
A Brave & Startling Truth
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
Have you been touched by the words of Dr. Angelou or another? How have you been resilient in your own life?