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My heart just stopped [Commentary]

Remembering Dr. Maya Angelou

May 31, 2014

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On Wednesday, just for a moment, my heart stopped. The same way it stopped when I heard that Toni Cade Bambara had breast cancer and when I heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away. It stopped the same way that my grandmother's heart stopped when she received the news about the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and the Four Little Girls. It only stopped for a moment as I realized that the world had lost a giant and for some of us, things would never be the same again.

I have always thought of Maya Angelou as the spiritual consciousness of our nation, embodying the best of who we are and everything that we should strive to become. I remember when she spoke at President Clinton's inauguration and she invited everyone: "…the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew/ The African and Native American, the Sioux/ The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek/ The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh/ The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher/ The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher" to come and plant themselves beside the river because their descendants had paved and paid the way for them to be there. I cried then as she laid out her vision for a new America, a place where all voices would be included and respected, a place where we could truly "give birth again to the dream" and lift up our eyes for the new day breaking for us. She was a force that had been shaped and nurtured by a difficult childhood, one in which she chose to remain silent for almost five years. She was a survivor and when she finally spoke to the world through her writing, her music, and her art, she spoke volumes. She made me feel brave, and on days when I felt like I could not go on, her poetry and her stories would make me stand a little bit higher and push me to go a little bit farther.

I received my copy of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)" when I was 16 years old, full of angst and crying over yet another boyfriend lost. My mother walked into my room, laid the book on my bed, and said, "Read it. It will make you strong. It will give you light, and it will teach you how to sing." I did and it did. It was the book that I carried with me to Ghana in hopes of retracing Maya Angelou's steps. It was the first of her seven autobiographies and I have read and devoured nearly all of them, highlighting passages, making comments in the margins as I tested and tasted each word and then made them my own.

I remember watching the movie "Roots" in 1977 and when Maya Angelou appeared on screen, my father started clapping and stood up. He then told us that when genius appears in your midst, you must stand up and mark the moment. My father, who grew up in South Carolina and was involved in the civil rights movement, does not know her as Maya Angelou the poet; he remembers her as a freedom fighter, as the person who walked with Martin and met with Malcolm. He remembers watching her dance and hearing her sing. He remembers when she performed and the world seemed to come alive around her. He remembers her as a spiritual sister; I tend to remember her as a spiritual aunt — a regal woman who gave advice and guidance.

I met her twice, and although I did not know her well, I claimed her words, her experiences, and her life as a part of my own. I used to teach her poem, "And Still I Rise" (1978), to women at the correctional center and at a women's shelter reminding them over and over again that the power to rise comes from within and that where you story starts (where you come from) does not have to be where your story ends. Your story — like Maya Angelou's story — can be shaped by you. You can name yourself and find a space that belongs to you. This is what she taught me, how to celebrate life and interpret and define the beauty that is inside of you.

I met her for the first time in 1999 at an awards ceremony in which my writing was being honored, and again in 2002 under similar circumstances. I was pregnant with my second son then, and I was complaining about being exhausted all of the time. I asked her to give me some advice on how to keep moving forward when everything in you wants to stop going. She took my copy of her first autobiography — the one that I was clutching in my hand, the one that my mother had given me when I was 16 — and wrote the word "joy" in capital letters. She then said, "Do everything with joy… !"

On Wednesday, just for a moment, my heart stopped and then as I remembered Maya Angelou and everything that she has given the world, and me, I smiled and gave thanks for her life, well lived.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis" (USC Press). Her blog is kayewisewhitehead.com and she can be reached at kewhitehead@loyola.edu.


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