The Tall Black Lady Smiling


I wanted to name my daughter Maya.

Maya Angelou may be the reason I am a writer.

She was probably the first female writer who I really read in high school, who made me feel like everyone has a story that is worthy of being told, and indeed must be told, in order to be fully ourselves.

She absolutely shaped the way I think about being a woman and being from Arkansas.

She allowed me to see that someone from Arkansas could make a difference in the world, could do something important and touch other people in a profound and fundamental way.

I don’t know when I first encountered her, whether it was her poetry or her memoir, whether I was forced to read it or discovered it on my own.

I do know I went out and bought a box set of paperbacks — it includes I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Gather Together in my Name and a single book with four of her poetry collections in it — when I was in high school and I devoured them. maya angelou influence

Even though our histories have nothing in common beyond our gender, the place of our childhoods and our love of words, I felt a connection to this phenomenal woman and a truth to her words that transcended those differences. She showed me that women’s voices matter and that we all have a story to share and even the hard parts — especially the hard parts — need to be told.

Eloquent to the End

A lot of notice has been given to Angelou’s last post on Twitter, which has been retweeted 85,000 times as of this writing.

maya's last tweet

Less well known but still completely beautiful is the letter of apology she wrote to the patrons of the Fayetteville Public Library, where she was supposed to speak last month but her poor health kept her from attending.

Dear Fayetteville Public Library, Arkansas Family and Friends,
I am profoundly saddened that I am unable to be with you on Friday, April 11, 2014. I long to come to the state of Arkansas, in general, and I long to be in Fayetteville, in particular. I learned in Arkansas at a very young age from my grandmother who taught me, ‘when you learn, teach and when you get, give’.
In Arkansas I also learned not to complain. I was taught that there are people all over the world who have less than I have and who would give anything for a portion of my possessions. They went to sleep last night as I went to sleep and they never awakened. Their beds have become their cooling boards and their blankets have become their winding sheets and they would give anything and everything for what I was complaining about.
In Arkansas, I learned to trust love, not the romance of it, but the heart of it. In Arkansas I learned to have respect for friendship, to honor it, to trust it and to build it.
An unexpected ailment put me into the hospital. I will be getting better and the time will come when I can receive another invitation from my state and you will recognize me for I shall be the tall Black lady smiling.
I ask you to please keep me in your thoughts, in your conversation and in your prayers.
Love,
I am,
Maya Angelou

This may be the best apology ever. We only wish we could see the tall Black lady smiling among us again.

Lessons through the Ages

She spoke so much to the young me. My friend Stephanie wrote of Angelou’s “fearless and beautiful confidence in her own femininity,” and that was certainly important to me as a teenager who wanted to feel strong and powerful and beautiful. I needed to know that beauty comes from within, regardless of whether you’re built to suit a fashion model’s size.

And she continues to speak to me. Her wisdom is unmatched.

She saw and went through so much in her life, from truly terrible circumstances in Stamps, Arkansas, sexual abuse and racism to breaking barriers and the first black president (as well as a president from Arkansas, for whom she wrote that beautiful poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”).

Video courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Watch to the end, because Clinton’s reaction is awesome.

And everything she did seemed to touch her, to teach her, to make her wiser. And she shared that wisdom with the rest of us through her words, making us wiser and better people in the process.

She is hope, inspiration, wisdom, kindness. She charges us all to be better people, no matter what has happened to us, to keep rising no matter what life brings, to tell true stores with heart, to live with love and respect for others and to be a teacher, to use your life in a way that touches and inspires others, to be bright and phenomenal and to love being a woman and the power that brings.

Ain’t I a Woman?

I’ve been rereading some of her words since her passing, and what spoke to me today is from the first essay in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, titled “In All Ways a Woman.”

Being a woman is hard work. Not without joy and even ecstasy, but still relentless, unending work…to become and remain a woman command the existence and employment of genius.

The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough. She must have convinced herself, or be in the unending process of convincing herself, that she, her values, and her choices are important. In a time and world where males hold sway and control, the pressure upon women to yield their rights-of-way is tremendous. And it is under those very circumstances that the woman’s toughness must be in evidence.

Also, “women should be tough, tender, laugh as much as possible, and live long lives.”

Maya Angelou definitely did all that, and though we selfishly wish her long life might have been a little longer, we treasure the light and love and wisdom she leaves behind.

Let’s go out there and be tough, tender, good people who laugh and live and share in joy.

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3 Comments

  1. Sarah, this is just perfect. What a beautiful tribute to a personal heroine and inspiration. It reminds me of a poem a friend once shared with me:

    People come into our lives and walk with us a mile,
    and then because of circumstance they only stay a while.
    They serve a need within the days that pass so quickly by,
    and then they’re gone beyond our reach, and we often wonder why.
    God only knows the reason that we meet and share a smile,
    why people come into our lives and walk with us a mile.

    What a mile you’ve walked with her, Sarah.

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