My soul is filled with a sadness I have only known since the death of one of my closest friends. Meeting you was on my bucket list, but it was not to be. I did not know you personally and yet, and yet…
At the tender and decades ago age of 23, I was browsing the stacks of a used bookstore in suburban Chicago with the help of a black and white tuxedo cat named Pandora, a permanent fixture in my favorite hangout. In retrospect, even my feline companion’s name was prophetic because I came across a well worn and many times read copy of your autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. There was a sticker on the book – 10 cents. As a starving just graduate from college, the price was right. In subsequent years of learning and growing as a woman and a human being, I’ve come to treasure the simple act of exchanging that dime for a dog-eared paperback under the guidance of an affectionate cat.
This very morning I was sitting alone in my office doing what I always do. Writing. And why do I write? I write because after reading your memoir, I was fundamentally changed as a woman and I knew what I wanted and had to do. It was in the process of reading your life story that all of my darkest secrets as a woman were revealed to me. I would never again be alone. Finishing the last page, closing the back cover, I discovered for the first time that I belonged to an exclusive club of women who had suffered in silence with what men had done to us. You taught me the meaning of being a survivor. You taught me the meaning of being a woman living in a man’s world. You taught me that the weaknesses of men would only make me stronger. You taught me the power was mine to take – and I did. And somehow, you managed to teach me it wasn’t wrong to love men because even though they had hurt me, so many of them were righteous and good. It was in the very act of sharing my voice that I learned of your death. My work was pushed away as all thoughts were of you and how you changed my life for the better. Consideration was given to crawling under the covers and grieving for you today, but I could hear that deep sultry laugh of disapproval from you before the thought was taken seriously. I know the voice you helped me find will always be a better use of my time and energy. You taught me that too.
Maya, you came from circumstances even more austere than mine – and that’s saying something. While we both came from the wrong side of the tracks, I’ll never know what it is to be black. I’ll never appreciate what it took to go from your beginnings to becoming a world-renown author, dancer, actress, singer and poet. I will not be a guest in the White House or speak at the inauguration of a newly elected President. That zero to one hundred long and steep climb you made up the sheer face of the mountain will not happen for me, as 50 is ever more rapidly approaching 60. I do not mourn for the things I did not attain but rejoice in the fundamental understanding and compassion each day teaches me to share with my fellow travelers. Each time my writings are published and I get a note from a reader that says, “You put into words what I was thinking and couldn’t say”, I am reminded that’s precisely what you did for me. You taught me to touch other people in lasting and meaningful ways. You helped me to find my voice and I help them to find theirs and that is how I pay your gift forward. That is how I honor your rich legacy.
My dear Maya, you gave me something else too. I thought when that man took my innocence and threatened me if I ever told, he took my soul. You taught me it was never really gone. I was twelve years old and I still have no memory of that entire summer. From that awful night to the first day of school, my soul hibernated until I could find something in my life to help me cope. For me, it was the first day of junior high. It would be 35 years before I could tell anyone what he did to me and because of you, it wasn’t told in shame.
I know why the caged bird sings.
Singing my song to the other caged birds helps them find their song. It helps them find the door to the cage and open it because you showed me where it was. And I show them. And they’ll show others. We each sing a different song and when we sing them together, our voices raise up in a beautiful harmonious symphony of power. Thank you for being my teacher, Maya. Thank you for being the Conductor of the Symphony of Feminine Possibilities.
I’d like to share with my readers the poem you wrote on the occasion of President Clinton’s Inauguration. It is entitled, “And Still I Rise”. The mere recitation of that poem, especially spoken in your rich alto mahogany tones, even on this day of your passing makes me smile. I will not spend this day in tears. You would despise that. Today is the day to rejoice. Thank you for being here, Maya. Thank you for showing me, for showing us – the way.
With enduring love and affection,