The books just came into my life. I have no idea how any of them got there. But they were always there, my rows of books. I kept them on the lowest shelf (an unsolvable mystery) and it was there I returned to, day after day, as one returns to her place at the dinner table. And it was there I found the nourishment that food could not provide.
I was 12 years old when I pressed open the rainbowed paperback called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was white, upper middle class, and one of the happiest and most secure children who has ever had the chance to live. There was no aspect of my life—apart from growing up in the South—that bore any resemblance to the life of the book’s author, Maya Angelou. Yet, instantly, I recognized her. The way she walked through the garden in the early morning with her brother, reciting lines from Poe. The way she laughed in church. The way she would think certain things just to make herself cry.
I wonder how many times I read it? It feels like a hundred. I had grown up, like all the Southern-born of my era, wholly engulfed in the invisible poison gas of our racial history. It had only just become invisible; my parents grew up under explicit segregation. One of the (few) strong bonds that initially brought them together was their instinctive repudiation of that detestable institution. Their disavowal of all forms of racism was a primary and formative feature of my upbringing. They enrolled my brother and me in public schools where, many years, African-American women were our teachers, and kids of all colors shared the classroom.
But we were still surrounded by this poisonous gas—the memories of the hate, death, and torture that had existed in the air around us for so many years before we breathed it all in. The too-recent past stayed in the rooms we inhabited, worked, and played in. As we got older, the races began to separate, as if they had always meant to. I didn’t understand, but couldn’t seem to get out of the dense field of whiteness I was caught in.
From within this eerie forcefield of race that seemed to follow me and everybody everywhere, Maya Angelou’s voice reached me, like a perfectly pitched ball. And I knew, I could feel, that she was aiming her voice right at me. She understood everything I didn’t know I didn’t understand. And she, across that mysterious divide, had decided to speak to me.
The book was written the year I was born. From the beginning, I interpreted this as a distinct sign that I was, in fact, specially connected to this book and this person in sacred and inexplicable ways. She even lived in my hometown. She taught at the same university as my father. I looked and looked for her around town, but she never appeared in reality. And all the while in my room, in my reading corner, less than 5 miles from her, she became to me more and more and more real.
I read her first four autobiographies compulsively. I wanted to see things the way she did; I wanted to be in her world, even with its unpredictability and pain. I followed her as she walked through the dead Arkansas heat to the white-owned drygoods store. I walked beside her as she perused the aisles, considering her purchase. I loved best her clear, discerning mind, so often knowing exactly what she wanted and why.
I stood behind her as those nasty white salesgirls talked about her to her face. “Is this that sassy Ruby Lee you was telling me about?” one said to the other. My imaginary self reached around her as she struggled to find words, and grabbed those women by their ugly dress collars, and yanked their faces close to mine.
“No, this is not Ruby Lee,” I would say in a quiet but savage tone. “THIS is Maya Angelou, a woman whose life will outshine yours by one million suns!” And I would shake those hideous people, and then drop them like trash onto the floor of the drygoods store. And I would link my arm in Maya’s, and together we would face the long and searing walk home.
I was willing to follow her anywhere, everywhere, because I understood her and I just knew she understood me. Our relationship, bound in sacredness through the written word, was perfect. She hadn’t even needed me in the drygoods store; in that moment, decades before the Civil Rights Act, in a dusty country store in rural Arkansas, surrounded by the deepest white hostility, she had gathered her formidable strength and told those awful salesgirls to address her as “MISS Johnson.” Alone. She walked back home alone, where her beloved grandmother—for the first and only time—hit her in the face. For talking back to whites. And the next morning, her grandmother put her on a train back to California.
I was willing to follow her anywhere. Because her voice told me she knew. She knew what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to be human. And she trusted that I, too, was human enough to hear her, all the way on the other side of those words she had mustered, so long ago, the courage to speak.
She mustered the courage to speak. Her gift to me, to all of us.
Over the last weeks, since her death on May 28th (my mother’s birthday), I have been re-reading the memoirs for the first time in many, many years. And what hits me with the greatest force is how much my life has reflected the very things she was trying to tell me:
That a woman can live, and thrive, on her own.
That a woman can choose to live closest to what is in her heart.
That a woman can become a dancer, then a singer, then an actor, then an activist, and then publish her first book over the age of 40, and then teach.
That reading literature is one sure path to broadening yourself in ways that matter.
That courage can change the course of your life, even–perhaps especially–when you are surrounded by evil.
For many years–in that life before the internet–this photograph was the only image of her I knew. It was the book jacket photo on all of her rainbow-covered books. My first year of college, the same year my father suddenly died of a brain tumor, I kept this photo (printed on a postcard) beside my bed. Hers was the face I looked to for that courage, that belief in self no matter, no matter, no matter what might happen. For the worst had happened, and there were few left in the world I still trusted to tell me the truth. I trusted her, because she knew me. She understood me. And she had taken the trouble to write: to all of us–and, with mysterious specificity, to me alone.