By Tara T. Green
I was in about the seventh grade when I learned about Maya Angelou. An English teacher, Mrs. Huntley, in my predominantly white Catholic school in the suburbs of New Orleans, decided that she would diversify our curriculum by introducing us to Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I don’t recall that we actually read any part of Angelou’s acclaimed first autobiography, but I do remember watching a film adaptation of the book. That slight introduction would lead me, about four years later, to find the autobiography and read it. She was my introduction to African American women’s literature.
I cannot imagine that I could have been raised a black woman in America without knowing something about her. She shared so much of herself through her writing and in her interviews, leading social media to start a hash tag “MayaTaughtMe.” Although I was not a student in one of her courses, I was able to hear her speak live twice.
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The first time I heard her speak was at the 1996 Essence Festival in New Orleans. She was so vibrant and appeared so confident. At the time I was pursuing a graduate degree in English with an emphasis in African American literature, thanks, in part, to her own contributions to the field. I could not imagine any greater joy, at that point in my life, than hearing Maya Angelou speak. She spoke from the heart. No cards or papers. I had the feeling that she knew me from someplace, in fact that she knew the hundreds of people in the room. Her spirit welcomed us. We could have been small children sitting around her at reading time, leaning in, listening intently to the story, but hoping that it would not be over soon.
She spoke to us about how beautiful we were and how we should be confident in our beauty. Through laughter, she declared that she was the funniest person she knew and that you should be the funniest person you know. She also told us about the beauty of black women. I often share with my own students that she told us that when a black woman enters the room, people have a tendency to turn around and take a look. This should serve as a gentle reminder to all of us about the importance of grace, poise and self-respect. We can own our introductions. She ended by reciting from memory her famous poem, “Still I Rise.” When she finished, we felt taller and wiser. One of the women I was with started crying and confessed that she had been resistant to a call she felt to attend law school. She decided that she would follow her calling.
It was that centering of black women as beautiful that had piqued my interest about her when I was in high school. As a black girl, I had been told that my race and gender meant that I had two strikes against me. In fact, this is often passed down from black mother to black daughter. But when asked about this idea by Arsenio Hall on his 1990s talk show, Dr. Angelou said she didn’t see that at all. She saw race and gender as two blessings. From that point on, I never looked at myself the same. I learned that I had been blessed with immeasurable value and worth.
In the fall of last year, she came to UNCG. Besides reminding the audience of the importance of poetry, she spoke of the importance of having courage. Dr. Angelou told us to have no tolerance for people who express a lack of love for others. She had, on occasion, removed people from her home who had made disparaging remarks about others. As a Southern woman, I view removing a person from one’s home as bold. But if you do not take immediate action, she warned us, the energy that the person is expressing could linger in the home long enough to make the homeowner sick. She reminded us of her childhood, which she describes in her autobiography, and her choice to stop talking because she felt that her decision to tell that she had been raped by a family friend resulted in the man’s death. Words have power.
We have learned many valuable lessons from Dr. Maya Angelou. She spent much of her childhood in a small Southern town, was sexually abused, became a single mother, but ascended to worldwide acclaim. She has left a legacy as an American, as a Southerner, as a woman, as a North Carolinian. I hope that English teachers, especially in North Carolina, are still teaching her work. I hope that children will learn how to use words as expression of love, that they will learn from her example of triumphing over adversity, that they will be courageous, and that they will learn how to value themselves.
Thank you, Maya Angelou.
Tara T. Green, Ph.D., is a professor of African American literature and gender studies and director of African American Studies at UNCG.