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Maya Angelou loved me.
I know because she told me.
I had two occasions to be in her presence. The first was during college. It was a private dinner for her in Alabama and I was in a room full of people who were all, at least in their own minds, way more important than me. I was meant to be decoration for the event. “Youth” for the sake of saying young people were in the room. I sat at my table all evening listening to person after person speak about how wonderful Dr. Angelou was and how Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise were a testament to her strength and wisdom, etc. I agreed and I nodded my head and clapped my hands as an outward indication that I did. But inside my brain I was whispering to myself and rejecting the spurious parade of adoration. The thoughts in my head were coming so fast and furious that I literally started shaking my head ‘no’ and had to tell myself to stop. I was just so uncomfortable. All of the praise being heaped upon her and no one was telling the truth. No one was saying ‘this is what a warrior looks like’ and no one was saying ‘truth can’t get any truer than what this women represents’ or that ‘this is how joy operates’ and I was getting sick from the omission. At the end of the dinner we were allowed to come down a sort of receiving line to shake her hand and get a picture if we had a camera. It was 1994. No camera phones and no digital cameras. I bought a disposable camera and left it in the car I came in by accident. I stood up really slowly when the line formed and tried to be as far to the back as possible so I could be the last person to greet her – hoping to get more time. The line moved excruciatingly slow and I watched as the person in charge got more and more antsy, checking her watch and whispering in the ear of the person next to her. My heart was racing. I was not about to miss my opportunity and I had a small window to do something about it. Following my instincts, I stepped out of line and made my way behind the dais to a door on the side of the room while there was still so much buzz going on in the space. As I was walking I heard that antsy woman say, “I’m sorry, but we have to let Ms. Angelou go now…” and like I suspected she would – she shut the receiving line down. The other folks in line grumbled and pleaded and held their cameras asking for at least a picture – but I was focused. Ms. Angelou and her party turned and headed straight for the same door that I saw her enter through and when she arrived. When the group got to the door I politely opened it like it was my job and then stood with them quietly as they waited for the elevator. When I got within earshot I said “Did you enjoy your evening Dr. Angelou?” and she said “Oh, yes, dear very much.” Then I said, “I didn’t get a chance to meet you, but I love you very much!” She said, “Aren’t you meeting me now?” The group laughed and then the fidgety women who had been looking at her watch realized I didn’t belong. She asked if I was a student and I told her I was and then she said that I needed to go out of the door in the front. At that moment Dr. Angelou said, “What is your name dear?” and I told her. She said “Well it was great to meet you” and I asked if could I hug her just as the elevator came. She turned and hugged me and I said almost teary eyed, “I love you” and she said “And I love you, Tarana.”
She said she loved me. And she pronounced my name right.
That moment was a highlight of my life, but I already knew that she loved me.
I grew up in a Black woman’s literary paradise. My mother had hundreds of books all over our house and a majority of them were from the most beloved and revered women writers of our lifetime. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and June Jordan and Gwendolyn Brooks and Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. As a little girl who loved to read I was always fascinated with the books my mother read mostly because of the pretty book covers and spectacular names . In particular, the Maya Angelou books had amazing covers and titles, but every time I asked my mom if I could read one she would say things like “I don’t know if you’re ready” or “not yet” and I would be so frustrated – but I obeyed her and left the books alone. I finally read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” at 13. I was in the sixth grade at Sacred Heart Middle School and it was a rough year. I remember when I started reading the book I was confused because it wasn’t hard to read. I thought my mother held me back from reading it because she thought it would be too difficult to understand. When I got to the part about young Maya and Mr. Freeman I understood. In the book, Maya Angelou talks about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at 7 years old. I was raped by the big brother of my childhood friend at 7 years old. At 13 years old – at the time I was reading this book – I was being molested and nobody knew. My 13-year-old mind could not understand and didn’t know that this was a thing that happens to girls and women around the world. I thought it was just me. I thought I was the kind of girl who bad things happened to. I didn’t tell my mother or anyone because I didn’t want them to know what a dirty, bad girl I had been. When I read about what happened to a young Maya Angelou it was the first time I even had a thought that another little girl could have gone through what I went through. I finished reading the book and I continued keeping, what was now in my mind, our secret. For me, Maya Angelou at that time was just another name on a book on my mother’s book shelf. She wasn’t “Dr. Maya Angelou” the esteemed poet, author, activist and all around wunderkind – she was a lady who wrote a book that shared my secrets.
Later on as a freshman in high school we read and studied “Phenomenal Woman” in my english class. I knew the poem but this was my first time dissecting it and reading her work with other students. My honor’s english teacher, Mr. Pieteritan, was in his white-liberal glory and very proud of himself for having this poem in his curriculum for Black History Month. I remember him passing out the handout and saying “you guys are SO going to love this!” Most of the class didn’t know the poem and many didn’t know Maya Angelou at all. I was excited when I saw her name on the paper and really eager to read out loud. Mr. Pieteritan allowed me and my friend Yolanda to read the poem together. I remember acting out a little bit and making the class laugh while I read; and then I remember him asking us what we thought this poem was about. Someone raised their hand and said something like it was about her letting the world know that she was fly and couldn’t be stopped. Mr. Pieteritan immediately agreed and went into this whole thing about how this was her way of saying “hey world look at me I’m a Black woman and I’m just as good as any white woman!” and then I remember very distinctly, he said while doing a weird ditty-bop type movement with his body – “She’s talking jive right? She’s kinda trash talking and saying ‘Yeah I’m better than you and you better believe it!” Before I knew it was going to come out I said “What are you talking about?” No!” Mr. Pieteritian was kind of used to my outbursts so he just turned and held out his hand and said “Ok, Ta-raan-a elaborate.” (he always pronounced my name wrong saying the middle part like the past tense of ‘run’ as opposed to the like the name ‘ron’). I sat up in my seat and said to him and the class that she was not talking ‘jive’ and she was not comparing herself to white woman – at all. I said that the poem, in my opinion was descriptive and that after a life like she had lived she was trying to explain to the world why they were so amazed by her and why she would never walk with her head down because she was a phenomenon. I said a bunch more. I was passionate about my explanation. I talked about how saying she was “jive talking” was an insult and demeaning to her. I talked about how all Black woman should feel this way. I talked about how she never mentioned white women or white people at all in the poem and it was “just like white people” to think that she had to be talking about them. When I was done, my classmates where a mixture of annoyed and amused. My teacher apologized for offending me and anyone else in the class and then went on to give a long, drawn out mini-lesson on the history of “Jive” in America. I rolled my eyes because although I didn’t know what ‘white privilege’ was at the time I certainly knew when I was experiencing it. I tuned him out and I sat for the rest of the class reading the poem over and over. I had read it before but not really read it. As I read the poem over and over and over my memory of young Maya Angelou and what happened to her was smacking up against what I was reading now. Even though I defended her right to be ‘phenomenal’ intellectually, I didn’t understand what that meant or how it was even possible spiritually. At a time when I was working hard to balance to duality of what I thought my deep, dark secrets made me and who I needed to be in order to keep those secrets covered up – I couldn’t understand how this woman who had been through what I had been through was able to hold those memories in the same body that held joy. I was amazed. I wanted to get to that place so badly and at that moment, with that poem, I started the journey and committed to finding out. I’m still on the journey but I’m as close as I have ever been because of her. I understand that its possible because I have the lived experiences that I was determined to have because she told me and showed me that I could.
Maya Angelou loved me.
I know because she told me.
From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Phenomenal Woman and every line in and around those remarkable works – she told me. She gave me a roadmap to myself. She and her friends did that and I won’t ever stop being grateful.
Rest in Peace Mother Maya.