While so many are eulogizing and praising and even archiving you in critical papers, I simply wanted to offer you this, my thank you note and love letter.
I don’t know if you will remember me or not, but I do believe that I was introduced to you first by Mrs. Carolyn Outlaw, the dedicated librarian at East Branch Library where I spent so many hours in my youth. Mrs. Outlaw led me to the poetry section where I stumbled upon you.
Such a get down girl and grand lady, a scholar and a priestess, a wise mother and BFF, all in the same quick breath, you were mesmerizing to me. I listened to you on those pages for hours, carried you home to meet my parents. I was so very proud.
I loved how you loved black people and all people, reminded us that we were all God’s children especially when we treated one another unseemly with such cruelty. I loved when you beamed with such pride at the accomplishments of others yet always felt to be on one knee no matter how high the pedestal on which you stood. And how incredible that when caged and songless, you never forgot that you had wings!
I admired your courage in transparency, the gentle weight of your voice, and guiding lilt of your silence. Folk who never bothered with a poem, their souls smiled from your words. Others who never gave a book a chance curled up with you for pillowtalk, confession, and testimony. You were church for folk who had not sat in pews in years.
At the Black History Month Talent Shows, Church Socials and Fashion Shows, and even the local Beauty Pageants, girrrrrl, you were a hit! And that “Phenomenal Woman?” That was one of the very, very rare opportunities where we brown/black girls got to sass with class in public and did not get popped on the bottom or mouth! We narrowed our eyes, placed hands on our waists and proclaimed, “It's in the reach of my arms/ The span of my hips,/ The stride of my step,/ The curl of my lips./ I'm a woman/ Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman/ That's me.”
And our mamas were proud!
Before I even knew what spoken word was, I was performing your poem on stage for talent shows because everyone else was singing, dancing, or roller skating. You looked like, felt like, sounded like where I came from not some distant land, tongue and people from a place I had never been. I did your poems on the stage with pride and promise! It worked so well, Maya, so very well that I began scripting poems of my own that looked like, felt like, sounded like me. I shouted them from the top of my lungs on the stage knowing that if nobody, nobody at all understood or approved, you would…
Yeah, it was personal.
Although you were poeting for the president and walking with giants like Malcolm, Martin and Amiri, it meant even more to me that unlike any other poet they showed me in grammar school, you gave me permission to not only to speak my language but declare it! Forty plus years later,
daily as blues bard, jazz siren, and pen priestess.
I cried the day they told me that you left. I sang a loud, sloppy sobbing song! Lost all of my poetessness and fell onto the bed a hot mess.
Who on earth could fill the mighty footprints you left on the souls of so many all over the world? Who would remind us of our greatestness when the world would swear we were at our lowest?
In tears, I sat and watched the tributes and reports from the media. One scholar praised, “Maya is one of those lights that goes out, but the shadow remains.”
Indeed, in deed…
Maya, I thank you.
Soothed by the blanket of your shadow cradling my shoulders, Still I rise, remove my shoes, and dare to dance a poet’s dance in the sacred ground of your footprints.
P.S. Many thanks to Letitia Johnson and Vada Wells who prompted me to write this “tribute.” I appreciate your support more than you know. Special thanks to Mrs. Outlaw who introduced me to the poetry section of East Branch Library in Evansville, Indiana.
Click the highlighted links above to find the works referenced. For more information on Maya Angelou, click here!