“Nobody can do it alone”
Civil rights icon Maya Angelou turned clouds into rainbows1
Only in darkness can you see the stars.
—MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
How can this end well? A girl, three years old, is sent across the American plains like a postcard. Responsible parents don’t even let their kids walk to kindergarten alone, but nightclub singer Vivian Baxter is getting a divorce, and her brats are now a burden. So Maya and her brother, four, find themselves in a train car all by themselves. The journey takes days. Fellow travelers feed them potato salad, and conductors help them switch trains. Name tags on their wrists prevent them from getting lost: “Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas”2
—a dusty, cotton-picker dump, where racial segregation is so ubiquitous that Marguerite—Maya Angelou—later joked that blacks were not even allowed to eat vanilla ice cream, only chocolate.
Thus begins Maya Angelou’s biography, and this ominous start is only the beginning to a life that will come to know
many more incredible episodes, as well as epic battles to erase “the ugly graffiti on the walls of her psyche,” as Bill Moyers once said about her.3
Nightclub dancer, singer, prostitute, pimp, journalist, actress, director, Martin Luther King Jr.’s right-hand woman, America’s national conscience: Maya Angelou’s life has woven the strongest fabric for her thirty books—thirty mirrors she held up to America. She was a pioneer in many disciplines: the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco; Hollywood’s first black director; the first black poet to read at a presidential inauguration; the first black woman to describe her life in such captivating, drastic terms that her book made the bestseller list for two years in a row. Barack Obama revealed that his mother, a huge fan of the poet, named his sister Maya after her.
Posttraumatic growth is something Maya Angelou knew all about. Despite the many episodes of violence and loss in her life, she learned never to give up. “When it looks like the sun wasn’t gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds. Imagine!”4
She hummed the lyrics from an old African American folk song. “I’ve had a lot of clouds, but I have had so many rainbows.”5
She even had the ceiling in her Harlem town house painted with clouds in a light blue sky. When we talked in the autumn of 2013, Maya Angelou spoke deliberately, every sentence piercing the air as sharp as a pencil. It was one of the last interviews she would give before we lost her bright light just seven months later on May 28, 2014.
During our talk, she sometimes gasped for air because of a collapsed lung, but her passion and candid humor blazed. She confronted her age and arthritis with the same kind of gung ho spirit she brought to life. “When I wake up with pain, I just tell the pain, ‘Get out! I did not invite you into my body!’
I actually say that out loud,” Dr. Angelou rasped in her deep voice, as she looked back on her life with wisdom and verve.
A hurricane and some fierce storms
As abruptly as Vivian Baxter had deported three-year-old Maya and her brother, she ripped them out of Stamps four years later and transplanted them to Saint Louis. The kids rejoiced briefly in the reunion with the bubbly nightclub singer. Maya Angelou described her mother as “a hurricane in its perfect power.”6
Baxter’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, took advantage of the mother’s night shifts and preyed on young Maya, raping her before she turned eight. In her famous autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she gave an account of her rape. She hoped that it would help other survivors of violence. “You can survive rape. You never forget it—don’t even think that. But you can survive it and go on.”7
Freeman ordered her to keep silent, threatening to kill both her and her brother. But when her mother discovered the bloodstained underwear, Maya revealed the name of the rapist. Mr. Freeman was sentenced to a year in prison—and, unbelievably, released the next day.
A few days later the police found his body behind the slaughterhouse, beaten to death. “I thought my voice had killed him,” said Dr. Angelou. “That was my seven-year-old logic, so I stopped talking. My mother’s family and my mother tried their best to woo me away from my mutism, but they didn’t know what I knew: My voice could kill.”8
Dr. Angelou called rape “a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing
nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness . . . And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.”9
Spanking didn’t get Maya to talk either, so Vivian Baxter shoved the sullen, taciturn girl off to her grandmother in Stamps again. This, said Dr. Angelou, “was the best thing that could happen to me!” For five years after the rape, she did not speak. Instead she withdrew into the universe of books, reading every tome on the shelves in the minuscule Stamps library. Perhaps in these speechless years she uncovered the force of language that she later unleashed on artists, civil rights leaders, and presidents. She learned by heart the wise lines of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare’s sonnets, convinced that Shakespeare must have been a black, barefooted chit like her—how else could he have known about abuse and calamity so intimately?
A course book in mastering posttraumatic growth
Maya Angelou is in this book for many reasons. I admire her for her vigorous, emphatic art of writing, for her unabashed self-confidence, her untiring work for women and blacks. A rare and rich treasure of wisdom, she is one of the greatest icons of the civil rights movement and one of the most distinguished African American authors. Her life’s achievements were acknowledged with three Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But I think she also deserved a Nobel Prize for posttraumatic growth. Her life was her greatest piece of art.
Her biography reads like a course book in mastering the vicissitudes of existence. She gave this book its title because
when asked how she rose above hardship, she defined her emergence as “bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said.”10
Speaking about the “blessed components of resilience,” she said, “A person who resists being tied down and bound and made less than herself is able, by resisting, not only to be better than the naysayer would believe, but she’s also able to lift up the naysayer.”11
Taking up the battle
Innumerable studies tell us that children like Maya Angelou, who were sexually abused or raised in a climate of poverty and violence, are more prone to posttraumatic stress, depression, addiction, and other severe emotional and physical issues. They are less likely to succeed in society, find and hold well-paying jobs, and develop healthy long-term relationships. Their disadvantage is compounded by the kind of unstable parenting and racial violence that Maya Angelou grew up with. Scientists show that neglect in early childhood leads to lasting changes in people’s brain functions, making them less stress-resistant and more fearful as adults.12
For decades, researchers believed that abused children were doomed to fail.
More than a million children are abused every year in the United States alone,13
so we better figure out fast how to protect and promote them. “As the world gets concerned, how do you shift the goal from surviving to thriving?” asks child psychologist Ann Masten.
Maya Angelou had an answer.
“Take up the battle. Take it up!” she rallied. “This is your life, this is yours! You make your own choices. You can decide life isn’t worth living. That is the worst thing you can do. How would you know? Pick up the battle and make it a
better world. It can be better, and it must be better, but it is up to us.”14
Stretch, stretch, stretch yourself
Before you interject the obvious—that we ordinary mortals cannot hold a candle to Maya Angelou’s fiery grace—let me tell you that she wouldn’t have accepted such an excuse. “If a human being dares to be King, or Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X, if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born, it means so can you. You can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself.”15
Not only did Maya Angelou prove her own words, but the country’s foremost child resilience expert, Ann Masten, too, vetoes the notion that resilience is rare and reserved for exceptional children with extraordinary talents such as Maya Angelou. “Resilience is common and grounded in ordinary relationships and resources” is the uplifting upshot of Masten’s decades of research.16
That’s why she calls our innate capacity to bounce forward “ordinary magic.”
The first psychologist to discover that a surprising number of at-risk children do well was Norman Garmezy, often lovingly dubbed “the grandfather of resilience theory.”17
In the 1960s he observed that many children of schizophrenics had grown into successful, happy adults, and he wondered what made the difference for them.18
Ann Masten collaborated closely with Garmezy at the University of Minnesota. “We focused on the gloomy for such a long time. It really bothers me that when people hear about the evidence on trauma, child abuse, and in utero exposure to alcohol, they assume, ‘Oh, I must be totally damaged.’ People pick up this idea, but there are many opportunities for reprogramming in the course of life. Resilience
does not mean you don’t have any scars, but I am continuously amazed by the human ability to reinvent ourselves.”
Reboot your life
“As human beings, we’re reprogrammable to a degree the pioneers of resilience couldn’t even have imagined. We are dynamic systems; we can change,” asserts Ann Masten. She likens the process to a computer restart. “Sometimes when things are all tangled up, you reboot it, you start over, and things straighten themselves out.”
You are not a statistic. Don’t let anybody tell you that your past defines who you can grow to be.
So, how do we hack into the programming code of this resilience reboot?
Masten and Garmezy spent decades looking at the factors that set resilient children apart, such as intelligence,19
personality, and self-mastery. But one factor stands out above all: the support of a loving adult.
Of all the “many, many resilient people” Ann Masten has met over the course of four decades, she’s noticed they unfailingly have had one thing in common. “You just don’t see examples of people who made it on their own.” When parents and teachers fail a child, in the end it does not matter so much who steps up, but that someone steps up and encourages the child to believe in herself, whether it is siblings, neighbors, or friends. “One woman’s unexpected helpers were homeless women,” Ann Masten recounts. “Though they were not doing that well themselves, they intervened in that girl’s life. They told her, ‘You can be somebody,’ and they went and got help. They played an important role. I think this is a very hopeful notion.”
Find your mentor
In Raising Resilient Children, psychologists Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein describe “a basic ingredient in nurturing hope and resilience in our children as the presence of at least one adult who communicates to a child, through words and actions, ‘I believe in you and I will stand by you.’ ”20
The late Dr. Julius Segal called such a supportive person a “charismatic adult.” Just one supportive adult could outbalance risk factors in maltreated children. “The power of one adult to change the life of a child,” Brooks and Goldstein urge, “must never be underestimated.”21
What we mustn’t forget is that these supportive adults often didn’t appear in a child’s life by luck or magic. Resilient children are especially good at forging connections, at reaching out, at recognizing trustworthy people and asking them for help.
Childhood is a time when we are most vulnerable and in need of support; but at any stage of life we still need people who value us, act as confidants, and stand by us no matter what.
Liberation through love
Maya Angelou came to exactly the same conclusion: “Nobody ever does it alone. Experience allows us to learn from example. But if we have someone who loves us—I don’t mean who indulges us, but who loves us enough to be on our side—then it’s easier to grow resilience, to grow belief in self, to grow self-esteem. And it’s self-esteem that allows a person to stand up.”22
Young Maya clearly suffered from the knowledge of having been rejected by her birth parents. The thought that her mother
“would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children”23
was too much to bear. She and her brother pretended their mother had died.
What life had in the cards for her didn’t look promising. But there was one crucial difference: “My grandmother! She was the greatest person I ever met. I thought she was probably God! She loved me unconditionally.” Maya is convinced that these injections of self-confidence made all the difference. Her brother Bailey, too, was a loyal companion to whom she could entrust her deepest secrets. “I am grateful to have been loved and to be able to love,” she said. “Love liberates.”24
“Sista, you gonna teach!”
Maya Angelou called her grandmother “Momma.” When Maya refused to speak, Momma didn’t chastise her, but simply handed her a small notebook with a pencil attached so that Maya could communicate with notes. “My grandmother said to me, ‘Sista, these people making fun of you and calling you dummy—Momma don’t care. You gonna be a teacher. You gonna teach all over the world!’ ” Maya Angelou remembers. “Amazing! I used to sit there and think, ‘This poor ignorant woman! I’ll never speak!’ Of course, now I have dozens of doctorates and teach all over the world. It’s a blessing.”
Maya’s mother had been unable to understand the depth of her daughter’s trauma, and could provide no comfort. But Maya’s grandmother, her brother, and neighbors in the tight-knit, poverty-stricken community of Stamps, accepted her for who she was, mute and all. “They really believed in me, and that made all the difference,” Maya Angelou told me.
A well-educated neighbor, “the aristocrat of Black Stamps,”25
Bertha Flowers, finally impressed upon Maya that she could not possibly love poetry if she did not read it aloud.
Hiding behind the chicken coop, Maya tried to read a few lines in secret. “She gave me back my voice.”
And so Maya learned, “Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse.”26
“You can do it!”
A supremely intelligent and intuitive child, Maya was adept at finding help and resources, proud of her special skills, increasingly sure of her self-worth and intelligence. While her town was threatened daily by racial violence, Maya Angelou attracted the attention and support of elders in the community who took her under their wing, gently challenging and nurturing her, and expanding her horizon by introducing her to the books that became her lifeline.
Her grandmother and the community taught her crucial lessons. “They taught me to stand up for myself, to be my own best friend, to protect myself. They encouraged me to encourage myself.” The difference this loving support made was integral to Maya Angelou’s understanding of her self-worth.
Her family didn’t do the work for her, but they nudged her enough so she could muster the courage to stand up for herself. “And I not only have the right to stand up for myself, but I have the responsibility. I can’t ask somebody else to stand up for me if I won’t stand up for myself. And once you stand up for yourself, you’d be surprised that people say, ‘Can I be of help?’ ”
This is exactly what charismatic adults do. “That’s one of the roles of these adults, to say, ‘You can do it, let’s try it, let’s go step-by-step!’ Ann Masten says, animatedly. “The mentors, the positive supporters in kids’ lives, they energize our motivation.”
Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud
Supporting resilience in others is the supreme way to nurture resilience in ourselves. “What are the components of resilience?” I asked Maya Angelou. She responded without hesitation, “A desire to make change. A desire to make change in your own life and in the lives of the people around you—to better, improve the life.”
She found her recipe for cultivating posttraumatic growth: “As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else,” says Maya Angelou. “It is a no-fail, incontrovertible reality: If you get, give. If you learn, teach.”27
What if you feel you have nothing to give? “We all have more to give than we give,” said Maya Angelou. “At the very least you can always give good thoughts.”
With this motto, she managed to not only turn her clouds into rainbows. “The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so that you can be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you, may not call God the same name you do, may not dance your dances, but be a blessing to somebody.”28
The decision to “no longer stand by”
Whenever she received an award, Maya Angelou thanked everybody who had helped her—God, teachers, rabbis, priests—but especially her late grandmother, Annie Henderson. Maya Angelou’s eyes welled up when she thought of this indomitable woman who instilled in her a strong sense of self-worth. Her grandmother, the only black woman to run her own store in Stamps, was a God-fearing, robust, dignified force unto herself. While she did not cuddle Maya and was prone to punish misdeeds with severe beatings, she impressed upon
her granddaughter a strong sense of right and wrong, the trust that God would protect her, and the wisdom of tolerance. And yet, Maya had to watch helplessly when her grandmother, her protector, could not protect herself from the humiliation and racial slurs of white children who would storm her grocery store. Maya responded by throwing rocks at them, but eventually she understood that the rocks only hardened, rather than extinguished, her rage.
Through these experiences, Maya transformed from a quiet, submissive victim to a more outspoken, tenacious activist. At age seventeen, when she was told that the streetcar operators of San Francisco didn’t accept blacks, she sat in their reception area every day for three weeks, ignoring nasty racial slurs, until she was given an application. Eventually, she made her decision to no longer stand by “with no chance of defense,” but to take up her weapon of wisdom: a pen.
Dr. Angelou has become a “modern-day Shakespeare” for millions, her books a trusted source of wisdom through which those who suffer find kinship.
Trying to make a better world
Carrying this message of triumph into the world was exactly why Dr. Angelou kept writing, speaking, and giving. Up to the last months of her life, she filled her schedule with teaching, empowering women, and receiving awards. “I’m a teacher who writes, not a writer who teaches,” she defined herself. For more than three decades, this woman who never attended college taught American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Thirty universities from all over the planet awarded her honorary titles, and she celebrated the status by asking even close friends to address her as Dr. Angelou. “I have created myself,” she said proudly. The experience of the
crucial difference supportive adults made in Maya’s life when she was a withdrawn child impressed on her the lifelong commitment to act as a charismatic adult for others. “I would like to be of use. Anyone who can’t be of use is useless. I’m not here for no reason. I am here for a purpose. So, I am a member of different organizations, trying to make a better world. I am of use, yes, people can count on me. I will do the best I can.”
I asked her the question that guided me throughout my research. “Why do some people come out of traumatic experiences such as loss and abuse broken and defeated, while others soar and emerge wiser and more compassionate?” I was taken aback by the answer, expecting, I guess, a “softer” response. “We overrate what the world owes us. We really think that people owe us, that we are entitled to raises and kind treatment and even success. Well, the truth is, I don’t know that we’re entitled to anything. I just know that when someone is kind and generous to me, I’m very grateful. Nobody owes me anything. So when I get something, I am very pleased and I try to give it away as soon as possible. I try to add to it and give it away to someone else who needs it.”
Develop an attitude of gratitude
Dr. Angelou called this “an attitude of gratitude. I think we have to be grateful. Grateful that we have a way to develop it. You could have died last night, you know. Be grateful. And show us the good face. Stand on the good foot. People like you better. You’re more welcome. And you like yourself better.” She laughed. Rather than reveling in the injustice and brutality that stamped her life, she chose to focus on the achievements. “If I live my life with self-confidence and kindness and don’t get anything back from that, I’m not overcome. I have so much. I can’t believe how blessed I am.”
Maya Angelou learned early on from her grandmother: “Whining is unbecoming. It’s just ugly. It also lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood. The brute who was gonna mind his own business or victimize someone else says, he says, ‘Oh, here’s a victim!’ And you get hurt. So it’s dangerous.” Just like Coco Schumann and many others in this book, she had to learn to stay strong and bite her tongue when survival in a hostile environment became her first priority.
The advice she received from her mother was to counterbalance the bleak with the blessings: “Laugh as much as possible. Laugh as much as you cry.”29
Not invincible, but strong
Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner found “protective factors” for the children who did well, mainly in three areas: in the child, in the family, and in the community.30
Maya Angelou had all three, just as Werner describes.
From the 1950s to the 1990s Werner followed 698 children in Kauai, Hawaii, from birth to midlife, conducting a landmark longitudinal study that examined the impact of biological and psychosocial risk factors. She discovered that one in three children were vulnerable, yet “even among children exposed to multiple stressors, only a minority develops serious emotional disturbances or persistent behavior problems.”31
Of the children living in troubled families, two-thirds “who had experienced four or more risk factors by age two developed learning or behavior problems by age ten or had delinquency records and/or mental health problems by age eighteen. However, one out of three of these children grew into competent, confident and caring adults.”32
These latter children were A students in school, developed friendships, and by the time they reached
age forty, every single one of them had a job, a steady income, and zero trouble with the law. “Their very existence challenges the myth that a child who is a member of a so-called ‘high-risk’ group is fated to become one of life’s losers.”33
Emily Bazelon cautioned in the New York Times, “When it comes to abuse victims, though, this finding is rarely trumpeted, for fear that saying abuse isn’t always inevitably harmful is tantamount to saying it’s not always bad.”34
No child is invincible, but we need to change the ways we think about abused and neglected children. They are stronger than we think. They need love, not prejudice. “Some of these kids come out of it, saying ‘I’ve seen the worst there is, nothing is gonna throw me after that,’ ” says Ann Masten. Can we see them as survivors instead of victims? This does not mean that they did not suffer, or were not hurt. Tedeschi’s fitting description of posttraumatic growth comes to mind: more vulnerable, yet stronger. But focusing on their strengths, rather than their humiliation, helps them reinvent themselves.
When Werner followed up with the Kauai kids in adulthood, she noticed a common thread: “the opening of opportunities in the third and fourth decade of life led to enduring positive changes among the majority of teenage mothers, the delinquent boys, and the individuals who had struggled with mental health problems in their teens.” Among the most potent forces for positive change for these youth in adulthood were “continuing education at community colleges and adult high schools, educational and vocational skills acquired during service in the armed forces, marriage to a stable partner, conversion to a religion that demanded active participation in a ‘community of faith,’ recovery from a life-threatening illness or accident, and, to a much lesser extent, psychotherapy.”35
Most of the people who managed to turn their life around in later years were women.36
Masten calls them the “late bloomers,” and Maya Angelou was one of them. Dr. Angelou recalled how, when seventeen years old and pregnant, she stood in front of the building in San Francisco that housed the beginning of the United Nations, staring enviously at the important politicians and translators who flooded in and out of the building, and dreaming herself into a bigger perspective. “I knew I had a penchant for language,” she said. “If I wasn’t six foot tall, black, unmarried, and uneducated, I knew I could go in.”37
For a few dark years Maya did drift into poverty and crime, working as a prostitute and a pimp. Her dream was to become a dancer, but she wrecked her knees. She chose instead to sing (though it wasn’t her passion) and quickly garnered an enthusiastic following. In Hollywood she worked with icons such as Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack, and Sidney Poitier, sang in the chorus of Porgy and Bess, and became “Miss Calypso.”38
Forgiveness as the greatest gift
Maya Angelou’s greatness began to shine through when she was given a stage on which to sparkle, and even her mother came around to see her daughter blossom: “When I was twenty-two, my mother told me, ‘I think you’re the greatest woman I ever met. You’re very kind, and you’re very smart.’ ” Maya was startled at first, but then wondered, “ ‘Suppose she’s right? Suppose I’m gonna be somebody?’ I had those loves.”
Her relationship with her mother is also a testimony to the force of forgiveness. Despite the early abandonment, Maya forgave Vivian Baxter her many obvious shortcomings. At the age of fourteen she came to live with her and they slowly developed a bond. “I think we all suffer,” Maya Angelou told me. “Some people seem to fall in love with the suffering and
cling to it. Then it’s very hard to get any work done, very hard to survive like that. You have to be honest with yourself: That action hurt me. That was unkind. And then go on about your business. But at least admit it. Dust yourself off and get on with your way. Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself.”
Baxter, who had been a “piss-poor mother” of the young child by Angelou’s standards, later forged a new relationship with her daughter. She even delivered the baby—Maya Angelou’s only child, Guy Johnson.
Abused children can become loving parents
Ann Masten rejects the popular notion that abused children are likely to become abusers. In her home state of Minnesota, NFL running back Adrian Peterson has been accused of severely beating his four-year-old son. “People are saying, well, he is just doing what his parents did to him.” Ann Masten has heard this many times. But just like Maya Angelou, the great majority of survivors have resolved to treat their children with the love and care they wished they could have had growing up.39
Ann Masten believes that, “Most people who experience this do a much better job as parents or become particularly good parents.”
However, she notes, “We are overwhelmed with children who don’t have that kind of supportive adult.” She recently returned from India and found it devastating “how many children there are who don’t have anybody. The parents are overwhelmed with getting food and shelter.” She reminds us that we must not forget the communal support we often take for granted: a bus to get to school (not to mention schools to attend), libraries to borrow books from, and so on. “If there is
no school and no library, no matter how intelligent a child is, it is much harder for her to develop her potential.”
Indeed, where would Maya Angelou be without that library in Stamps?
“The glorious task of reclaiming the soul”
In the fifties, another mentor entered Maya Angelou’s life: Martin Luther King Jr. “He was the best we had, the brightest and most beautiful,”40
she said after her first encounter with him. From him she learned: “We, the black people, the most displaced, the poorest, the most maligned and scourged, we had the glorious task of reclaiming the soul and saving the honor of the country. We, the most hated, must take hate into our hands and by the miracle of love, turn loathing into love. We, the most feared and apprehensive, must take fear and by love, change it into hope. We, who die daily in large and small ways, must take the demon death and turn it into Life.”41
Maya Angelou matured into a strong-willed civil rights hero. She recounted with deep satisfaction that her life catapulted her to the hot spots of black history—Ghana, South Africa, Harlem, marches in Washington, and into the midst of the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
In the summer of 1959 she organized the legendary Cabaret for Freedom, a fund-raiser for Martin Luther King Jr., and became the coordinator of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). After a short stint as a journalist in Egypt, she made friends with Malcolm X in Ghana. She agreed to help him build his Organization of Afro-American Unity, but Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965 put an end to her involvement. The demon death became a steady shadow, with forty-nine deaths in Watts alone. Martin Luther King Jr. enlisted her to organize a march in Washington for
him. She agreed, but postponed her departure until the day after her fortieth birthday. On the evening of her birthday, April 4, 1968, King was shot to death in Memphis. His murder catapulted Maya Angelou into a ruthless depression.
For many, many years she wouldn’t celebrate her own birthday, but instead spent the day commemorating King with his widow Coretta Scott King, praying “for this country.”
Blacks during these decades of segregation, abuse, and violence had a choice, just like any oppressed group has—they could choose submission or resistance, silence or violence, or shades in between. Maya Angelou veered among all these options at one time or another, but in the end she chose love. She followed King’s advice: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”42
It seems a superhuman effort that all these decades of violence didn’t turn her bitter and hateful. She felt that turning cynical meant handing a victory to the aggressors. “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”43
Overcoming the fear of death
Fear, though, was her constant shadow. With the death of her beloved grandmother “Momma” in 1953, Maya lost her bedrock. Grief flipped into fear. She recounts anxiously checking on her son Guy, then double-checking all the locks in her house and shifting chairs under door handles. “I didn’t realize that I was trying to keep death out,” she told Oprah Winfrey of this period. “Then I began having trouble breathing. Finally, I had to come to grips with what was the matter with me. I looked at my life and thought, ‘I’m afraid to die.’ And I concluded that whether I was afraid or not, I would die. It
was one of the most important crossroads in my life, because once I realized that no matter what, I would do this thing, the next step was to think, ‘If I am going to do the most difficult and frightening thing—dying—is it possible that I could do some difficult and maybe seemingly impossible things that are good?’ You’d be surprised what coming to grips with the fact that you will die does for you.”44
How does one come to grips with a big question like this? “First, tell the truth. Tell the truth to yourself first,” she said from her home in Winston-Salem. “Admit that you’re lonely and you do get afraid sometimes. Admit that you do overcome and that you like yourself better when you’re laughing.”
After King’s death it took her several years to dig herself out of the dark cave of hopelessness and throw herself into fresh projects with renewed fervor. Instead of focusing on the violence and the death toll, she decided to shine a light on the accomplishments of her people. She invented the Black History Month special Telling Our Stories to feature black role models such as Kofi Annan, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Hudson. “We’re more alike than we are unalike. When you know that, then you can make a relationship that helps us all to be kinder, truer to each other, more courteous.”
Maya Angelou was one of the rare voices of harmony in a divided America, a “global renaissance woman” whose voice did not fall on deaf ears. After she wrote and recited a poem for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, her books’ circulation exploded. When President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Freedom, he recited part of the inauguration poem she had written for Bill Clinton: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”45
Rising above and beyond
Dr. Angelou celebrated her many achievements “with a happy spirit, joyful that I didn’t die last night. I’ve conducted the Boston Pops! I’ve danced at La Scala! I spoke at the United Nations!” One of her favorite words was “joy!”—a word she added to her signature when signing her books, with an exclamation mark!
Almost fifty years after she had admired the United Nations in San Francisco as a young, pregnant, uneducated girl, she did indeed get to go inside and speak in front of the heads of state. For the occasion, she composed A Brave and Startling Truth, a poem about rising above and beyond, and we need to hear its soaring message of hope and peace. Its final verse sets the perfect tone for the work ahead:
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world
That is when, and only when,
We come to it.46