I grew up in a household where her name was common. My mother loved her work and quoted her often. For me, her name was associated with lyrical fragments and reverence. I actually did not read a complete poem or any of her prose until I was much older. Instead she just existed as a part of my childhood background.
Like Maya Angelou, I grew up in rural Arkansas. Every time we drove through Stamps on our way to Texarkana and beyond, my mother would turn me.
"Grace, do you know who lived here? Have I told you?"
"Maya Angelou grew up here. She was the same age as you."
"I know, Momma."
I accepted her existence with the casual indifference of a child. She wasn't real to me. She was a name, a few pretty words, but she had my mother's admiration. I knew she had to be something wonderful.
Through high school and college, I read a few of her poems, but not in any concerted manner. One verse, one image, did stick to my mind. Maybe it spoke to my adolescent sense of sexuality. Maybe it was the celebration of a woman's body. Maybe it was just the rhythm of her words. But they stuck with me.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
It wasn't until a few months ago that I realized how much in common I had with her. I finally picked up a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It blew me away. It was beautiful and tragic and harsh and uplifting. It was lyrical and gritty and intense. I was in love.
Though I have thankfully not suffered the same tragedies as Ms. Angelou, I knew the town where she grew up. It was my town. Her neighbors were my neighbors. Her culture, my culture. It made me want to write about my childhood, about that isolated southern world were we both spent our formative years.
Then on May 28th, 2014, Dr. Maya Angelou died.
I've followed her on Facebook and that's where I heard the news. I was devastated. She had always existed for me. She was woven into the fabric of my understanding. She was gone and I would never get to meet her. I had to tell my mother.
That was a call I didn't want to make. I knew my love for Ms. Angelou paled in comparison to that of my mother's. I avoid the topic at first and then blurted it ungracefully.
"Momma ... Maya Angelou died."
For the last week she's been on my mind. I see snippets of her poems and inspirational quotes everywhere. I've started my second novel that takes place in a small southern town and I see her in my words and characters. When I picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I also bought a copy of her most recent autobiography about her relationship with her mother, Mom & Me & Mom.
I skipped all the books in between because the central theme of the novel I'm writing focuses on the loving and destructive dynamic between a mother and daughter. I started and finished the book in a day.
It didn't have the same powerful impact as Caged Bird, but it was well written. It lacked some of the flowing lyricism, but I'm sure that's just an evolution of her writing style. She talked about her mother with the same awe and admiration I often feel for mine. Their relationship was tumultuous. Her mother left her at the age of three with her paternal grandmother. Betrayal, abandonment, and love wove a strong thread between these two strong women. It is definitely a book I would recommend, but only if you've read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That book I recommend over all others.
And thought I'm sure many of you have read this in the days since her passing, I leave you with a video of the poet herself reciting her amazing work "Still I Rise."