Yesterday, shortly after we learned that Nobel laureate Maya Angelou had died at the age of 86, the Internet seemed to erupt with quotes and excerpts from her large body of writings.
In a spontaneous surge of remembrance and mourning, post after post recalled her powerful autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). People remembered her up-close and unflinching look at the racism of the American South – her story, yes, but one in which we all were implicated.
We recalled that she was a survivor – not only of America’s tortured past and present with regard to race – but also of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. We recalled her five-year silence, self-imposed when her abuser was murdered, because she 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.”
Newsfeeds became monuments bearing witness that her voice, itself resurrected, could bring life out of death and flood darkness with light. From her silence came a voice for many, one that gave millions the words to say: “I’m a woman/ Phenomenally./ Phenomenal woman,/ That’s me.”
On a morning as ordinary as any other, we were reminded of the singular pulse of the new day, and heard again a voice lifted in prayer that in that new dawn
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
A rising tide of words issuing from a voice that could not be silenced by death. Words of hope insisting to hearts cynical and weary that “History, despite its wrenching pain,/ Cannot be unlived, but if faced/ With courage, need not be lived again.” Words that by their presence made clear the magnitude of our loss.
Wednesday morning was the exact opposite of a moment of silence. It was the exact opposite of five years of silence. It was beautiful.
May she rest in peace.
Cover image by York College via Flickr.