Today, the world lost an incredible voice.
Poet, author, dancer, singer, humanitarian and a source of strength and inspiration, Dr Maya Angelou, passed away.
As a child, I grew up hearing about this amazing woman with the ability to sting together words in such a way that moved a generation and set hearts and minds aflame. Then, one February, I was asked to recite Still I rise for a Black History Month assembly. I was terrified. I hated public speaking, still not a fan actually. Whenever I did it, my shyness forced my voice to be just above a whisper so the audience would always strain to hear.
But my teacher and parents decided that I was going to do this. Why me? I still don’t know, and to be honest I never bothered to ask.
My parents diligently worked with me each night, helping me memorize the lengthy poem. My teacher, a poet herself, taught me the intonation and played recording of Dr Angelou so I could understand the natural sass that seemed to ooze from her whenever she spoke.
Finally the night came. I could feel my stomach twist as my classmates gave their presentations. One by one they went, confident and sure. All too quickly, it was my turn.
I climbed the stage stairs and stood before the mic, still terrified. I started reciting from memory, sounding as scared as I looked.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
First line, done.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
My words became less about repeating what I’d memorized and more about expressing the ideas within the poem. On and on the lines flowed until the last stanza:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
When the last ‘I rise’ left my lips, I felt powerful. Like the words alone had given me so much strength that I could say the poem all over again. Thankfully, it was time for the next person.
15 years later, that poem has stayed with me.
Thank you for your words Maya Angelou and thank you for overcoming all the odds and sharing your gifts with the world.
You are already missed.