You are not as lame as you think. To honor our elder Maya Angelou’s passing, I encourage all “once upon a time” poets and current poets, and non-poets to write a poem. Do it and share it in person with someone you love and send it to someone who does not know you are a poet.
2. Get frustrated.
Maya Angelou can be considered the thread that sews together the last century’s big ideas to this century’s pent up frustration. We have a lot to be frustrated with. White supremacy still throttles the planet with its delusions. Darker skinned people, like Maya Angelou, are still stuck, while lighter skinned people still believe their shit doesn’t stink – when it does. There’s this widening gap between rich and poor and the disconnection that we have created between the natural world and ourselves. Of course, there is pervasive destruction we visit upon one another with bombs and bullets that rip apart communities, homes. More than anything it is that we live in a world that disempowers us individually and collectively. Maya Angelou’s passing reminds us of the power of individuals in marshaling the wisdom of the crowd. It is a wisdom that we desperately need. We yearn for revolution. She lived it.
3. Don’t fall for the “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” narrative ever again.
You will see, if you already have not, that commentators will be quick to own her story. They will try and posit that she was just another example of a ‘high school dropout’ that rose on her own. They will want to loft her up as an example of the elusive and imaginary American Dream where all you need is a good idea and hard work and you will get ahead. It is true that she created herself and that she has been at the low-end of society and at its very heights. Indeed, she recreated herself multiple times. But she did not do this on her own. Maya Angelou was always within a context; she was always part of the overwhelming current. She rode each movement like a surfer – always with the wave and always out in front – but never without the history of countless enslaved African storytelling mothers that entertained their children in the pitched darkness of North American nights. The arc of her narrative is fiercely American, collaborative, family and community oriented.
4. Read what you write everyday.
Maya Angelou was devoutly artistic – when she was at the height of her artistic expression she was a family woman, a lover, reader, and loner. I love, and can empathize with, the fact that she used empty hotel rooms as the ‘room of her own’ to compose. Diligent, each day she read what she wrote. Most of us barely scan what we illegibly scribble. She took the time to re-read, first to herself, and then to her husband before they went to bed. This is because she understood the importance of the way that humans interpret symbols. To my knowledge, her faith and belief was not wrapped into a specific discipline and ritual but it was through her works that she tapped into the sacred. Whether as a confidante of Malcolm X, a sex worker, or an inaugural poet, she exhibited a true faith – the faith of the artist whose path was not perfect but who found love in humanity in all its imperfection.
5. Treat people like royalty.
I met her majesty once. I was a student at the University of Rhode Island and it was the mid-1990s. At the time our campus was convulsing from a series of race and class charged incidents. I was the vice-president of the student senate and the president, a guy named Dean Copans and I were elected on a slogan of “Unity is Strength”. We meant it. He was Jewish, I Muslim; he White, I black. He was from South Africa, I was from Brooklyn. The slogan fit and our landslide victory ushered in the first non-Greek ticket in the school’s history.
We genuinely did want to bring the campus together. We agreed that we wanted to bring someone to campus that everyone could respect, that all could look up to, someone that would inspire the campus to be better than we were. So on January 24, 1998 we welcomed Maya Angelou to our campus.
Almost all campuses have a gym named after some legendary coach that by now is dated, crumbling, and used for student events. I remember walking down the hallway in the back of Keaney Gymnasium, with its dusty corners and wrinkled paint, reeking with hard work and sweat. She was in the makeshift Green Room, a backstage they carved out of the bowels of the building where normally only trainers and athletes stumble. As a football player I knew these nooks and crannies well. We arrived and were greeted by one of her handlers who initially did not grant us entrance. Eventually we were allowed in, explaining: “We were the ones who brought her here.”
I grew up in Black Nationalist Brooklyn where elders were treated like elders. Dean was from the white South Africa that had to leave to maintain their dignity out of disgust for apartheid. Our upbringing gave us both a healthy respect and understanding of how to show deference to our elders and to speak when spoken to. We waited for her to initiate and engaged in a light conversation. At the time I was fond of asking important thinkers the same question: “What is your theory of human nature?”
To be honest, to this day I do not recall what we talked about. What I do recall is that she embodied one word: regal.
6. Be an ancestor in training!
My people are African American/Black/Afrikan: people of African descent whose ancestors were brought to this country mostly during the slave trade. Alongside Puerto Ricans, and immigrants from African countries like Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, among many other places. I was raised observing our culture that was, by this time, many decades and centuries removed from my own reality. Still, what we maintained was a deep reverence for those that have fought, struggled, and overcome before us. This much is absolutely clear. We are all ancestors in training.
The truth is that black Americans are some of the only people that have no connection to their ancestry. Since we have become free of the physical bonds of slavery we have worked harder than most earthlings at re-creating culture and tradition. Maya Angelou was one of the central figures of that re-creation narrative. She is a black American Shakespeare and Rumi, a female Homer and Kabir. As such we have to let her go to the other side so that she can become what she was meant to be, to meet her Creator and take her place as an ancestor. Knowing full well that we have to continue to create and that we are all ancestors in training.