[Interior. I’m sitting at the dining room table, plugging away on my laptop. My wife comes home for lunch yesterday and to switch cars so that I can go pick up the twins from preschool later in the day]
Dustin: Hi. How are you?
Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate: Good, how’s your day going?
Dustin: It’s been slow. You know what Louis C.K. post I was talking to you about writing this morning, and how I was trying to be as sensitive as possible about it?
Mrs. Ph: Yeah?
Dustin: Ironically, of all the things, someone in the comments ended up yelling at me because I mentioned the names of Louis C.K’s children, even though he’s mentioned them on several occasions. I CAN’T WIN.
Mrs. Ph: That sounds about right.
Dustin: Oh, and also Maya Angelou passed away.
Mrs. Ph: What? NO! [gets a little misty] She was so amazing, Dustin, and and so inspiring.
Dustin: She was, wasn’t she?
Mrs. Ph: Why don’t you write about her?
Dustin: Oh, I dunno. I mean, obviously I know about Maya Angelou, but you know I hate poetry, and I don’t feel well versed enough about her life to talk about it without feeling like a fraud whose trying to exploit a great woman’s passing for page views.
Mrs. Ph: What do you know about her?
Dustin: Well, I mean. I generally know about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and of course I remember her reciting that poem at Clinton’s inauguration.
Mrs. Ph: Right. She’s from Arkansas, you know?
Dustin: Yes! From Stamps. Not the best part of the state. I lived around there for a few years when I was little.
Mrs. Ph: I can tell you one thing I know from Maya Angelou: It’s hella racist there.
Dustin: I imagine so.
Mrs. Ph: Well, here’s the thing. You know that #YesAllWomen thing that Courtney’s been writing about, and that Slate piece you showed me? There’s an interesting parallel there because Maya Angelou spent her life talking about her experience, and there were a lot of white people who weren’t necessarily racist who would say, “Yeah, but we’re not all like that,” but Angelou just kept repeating it until they began to understand that it wasn’t about them, and that it was about her, and about living as a black woman in the South, and that they should just shut up and listen. And eventually they did.
Dustin: Oh wow, that’s amazing.
[My wife leaves the room, and comes back a few seconds later with her iPad, reading to me about Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’m not sure what she was reading from, but here’s Angelou’s Wikipedia page. My wife reads about her upbringing, about how after she was taken from her grandmother’s custody and returned to her mom, she was raped, and how her uncles murdered the man who raped her, and about how Angelou didn’t speak for five years after that because of how afraid she was that her words could kill someone. “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …”
It was during that five years that she turned to books and developed her memory and it helped her to become the woman she became.]
Mrs. Ph: [misting up again, unsurprisingly] Now, think about this. Maya Angelou was raped when she was a child, and she was the one who ended up feeling like the victim, and she was the one who didn’t speak for five years. Think about all that baggage she had, about her insecurities about race, and sexuality, and the fears she had around sex.
[Mrs. Ph leaves the room again, and returns with a short book of poems by Maya Angelou called Phenomenal Woman]
Mrs. Ph: Read this.
Dustin: But you know I hate poetr …
Mrs. Ph: … just read it, OK?
I proceed to read these four poems, and they are amazing. Truly, phenomenally amazing, all the more so when you consider her past, and contrast it with the miles she must have travelled emotionally to get to a point of self-confidence so profound that she could write “Phenomenal Woman.”
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels
The bend of my hair,
The need for my care
‘Cause I’m a woman.
Or “Still I Rise,” which I like to think of as a “fuck you” to anyone who tried to keep Maya Angelou down.
Leaving behind the 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.
And then “Grandmothers,” another f*ck you to the racists or anyone who tried to hold her back, that ended up making even me misty:
She heard the names
swirling ribbons in the wind of history
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in the world,
And I shall not, I shall not be moved.
And that’s Maya Angelou, an amazing woman who escaped her past, who refused to shut up when she was told to, who took back ownership of her own body and of her sexuality, and who refused to step aside for the men, and the racists, and the institutions that sought to walk past her and ignore her words.
RIP Maya Angelou.