The courage to survive victoriously

The Dallas Examiner | 6/9/2014, 2:27 p.m.
Dr. Maya Angelou was one of the most beloved heroes of our time. Her magnetism was so great that millions ...
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The Dallas Examiner

Dr. Maya Angelou was one of the most beloved heroes of our time. Her magnetism was so great that millions – probably billions – of people across the globe felt a connection to her.

Through her spoken and written words, she was many things to so many people.

She was a mother, the first Black streetcar conductor in San Francisco, waitress, dancer, wife, educator, professor, editor, singer, actress, poet, civil rights and women’s rights activist, humanist, playwright, filmmaker, writer, historian, counselor, mentor, chef and survivor … the list goes on.

But there was a time, as many people know, that she lived her life without speaking at all. At 7 years old, her mother’s boyfriend molested her. So ashamed by what happened to her, she felt she could only confide in her brother, who was very close to her. Later, she learned that her uncle killed the man by kicking him to death. This traumatized her, to think that her voice could kill people, and she stopped talking for five or six years, despite her family’s efforts to get her to talk again. However, she did talk to her brother occasionally, but almost all of her communication was with a pencil and a small tablet that she kept with her.

Mrs. Flowers, a Black lady who would visit her town every six months, instructed her to read all of the books in the library of the town’s small school for Black children. During this time she learned that she loved poetry. When the woman would return, she would bring the young girl books and they would enjoy tea and cakes as they read. Angelou began writing pages and pages of poems. But the lady insisted that she could never learn to love poetry until she could hear it roll across her tongue, through her teeth and pass her lips. She wrote on her tablet that she really did love it. And for the first time, Flowers refused to read what she wrote. She ran from the woman and the thought of speaking.

Angelou said that the woman “harassed” her for about six months. Flowers would shop at the store owned by Angelou’s grandmother and point at her in front of her mother, insisting that she will never love poetry until she can recite it out loud. With determination, young Angelou ran under her house and struggled past the fear to see if she could still speak and to see if it would cause harm to anyone. She read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy, about a caged bird. As she read, and the words slid across her tongue, through her teeth and past her lips, she was amazed by the sound of the poem. To read it was one thing, but to hear it gave it life. She would never let her voice be silenced again.

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning,” she later wrote in reflection.