In “Maya Angelou showed how to survive rape and racism – and still be joyful”, Tayari Jones reminded me why I stopped short of crying when a friend informed me that Maya Angelou had died: too much to remember that I did not want to remember.
The older I get, however, the more I tell myself: I can choose what to remember and what to forget. I can re/create myself as many times as I want. As I enter the second half- century of my life, I tell myself I have earned this right.
But today, I allowed myself to remember and cry just a little as I participated in Day 8 of the Black Feminist Breathing Chorus Meditation: Give Me a Song of Hope and a World Where I Can Sing It (honoring the work of Pauli Murray).
Memories of the slave trade come in the “slide of my feet against wood floors”.
Memories of my childhood come when honoring the life of Maya Angelou.
At a time when I had learned to eat my voice in order to stay alive, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings gave me permission to speak about what had and was happening to me through the pen and page. It gave me courage to reclaim a voice I had lost during the Middle Passage and when I was six years old.
I came into possession of this book almost ten years after it was first published. I was not yet a teenager. It would be years before I would have the courage to read my poems out loud to audiences.
I would do this only after getting permission from Mary Webster, an amazing elder. She came to my house to read my poems, to testify that I was not alone as a “survivor”, to pray with me that I would always have the courage and support needed to speak a truth that would help heal others.
Unfortunately, once I began to share my work publicly I would discover that the number of girls and women who had survived sexual abuse and rape were more than I was prepared to imagine. And, this was just in the community of women I knew.
Maya Angelou gave me the courage to scream out loud. Since then, I’ve learned to turn my screams into a keening that transform into songs of hope for a world where young girls and women don’t have to be afraid of anything, even the things they can’t see in the dark.
I have not been afraid for some time, at least not that kind of afraid that physically paralyzed me at various times, or made me afraid to be with other people. But, I am afraid in other ways.
Today, May 30. 2014. Headline: “Malaysian teenager gang-raped by 38 men”. In my rather understated way, I can only say: By far one of the most disturbing of the day. So disturbing that typing this, which forces me to think about what might have happened and what will happen to this young woman, makes me want to disassociate, something I never did as a child.
But I won’t. Maya Angelou made it possible and necessary to remain present to confront my own fear and anger when reading or hearing these stories, to be present for the young girl or woman without judgment or pity. And, she made it a life-long mandate to not remain silent about the stories that most move me to anger and action.
Memory comes whenever it wants to, which is of course never on my schedule, and at rather prosaic moments that make their ways into poems. For example: A discussion of Boko Haram leads to a remembering or re-experiencing of the African Transatlantic Slave Trade and young girls being stolen and sold in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The older I get, more of my elders and mentors die. Even with the right to choose what I want to remember and forget, I know that I don’t want to forget some things, especially the painful things.
I want only to be able to choose how I interpret and make meaning of what happened to me.
Thanks to Maya Angelou, from the beginning, even before I knew that letting my voice free would mean choosing a life-long war on injustice, I chose to be joyful, whole. I chose to Love. I chose to heal.
And, I chose to teach others to do the same.
In doing so, I am following the path that Maya Angelou and others hacked clear with a machete, not even a sharpened one at that, with their own bodies, their own souls.
The other reason I stopped short of crying: There are not enough tears I could ever cry to express my gratitude.