“The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.”
Centuries ago, African-American slaves had an oral tradition of poems and songs through which they passed their history down generations. They sang of hardship, oppression, and loss, saying “I” when they really meant “We.” Their voices were their weapons in the fight against ignorance, injustice, discrimination.
Photo credit: ThoughtCo.com
In 1928, a girl with a powerful voice was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her name was Marguerite Annie Johnson. Her brother called her Maya affectionately. Maya would grow to become Maya Angelou, the woman who spent her life singing against racial, social, and gender inequality. Her message: love.
Maya first discovered her voice when she was seven years old; she was sexually assaulted by a friend of her mother’s. She denounced her attacker at a time when no one spoke of gender violence. He was incriminated and later murdered. The child thought it was her fault:
“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
She silenced her voice for five whole years. Maya did not say a word until, in a beautiful turn of events, words themselves made her speak again:
The writings of Dickens, Shakespeare, Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, James Weldon Johnson. The poetry of Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, Langston Hughes, and Jessie Fauset. With the help of a loving eighth-grade teacher, Maya finally grasped the importance of the spoken word and the power of voice.
From then on, she not only spoke; she sang, danced, acted, made plays, and became one of the first African-American female screenwriters and film directors.
She wrote poems, autobiographies, novels, and also became the first African-American to write a non-fiction bestseller. She gave speeches as a civil rights activist and wrote a poem for a president. Her voice spoke for “all people who are committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States.”
“My mother’s principal message was one of inclusiveness; that despite our ethnic, religious and cultural differences, we are more alike than unalike.”
She challenged the world to see itself as she did. Her whole life, she never stopped singing for tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, always love. Her voice was never loud, but strong. Never aggressive or violent, but powerful. It inspired a nation, and still does. Her song rings as true as ever:
“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
– Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning
Photo credit: Hollywood Reporter