Maya Angelou taught us to sing

05/28/2014 11:31 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Maya Angelou is forever.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

As kids, a lot of my friends knew the words to “And Still I Rise.” It’s one of those poems you learn young, because even when you’re little, words like that make you feel big. That’s the power of Maya Angelou.

She’s the ultimate motivator. For that reason, I don’t know many 30-somethings who weren’t given a copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” during high school. My aunt Ellen gave me mine for graduation, because you can learn inner strength from Maya, she said. She gave me her entire Maya Angelou collection right off of her bookshelf that day.

Even if it didn’t all connect right away, eventually it would. You would learn from Maya. You could be awestruck watching her make history as she delivered the graceful “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Or maybe you were watching something as simple as “Poetic Justice” starring Janet Jackson, and there she was, reciting Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” Who didn’t want to be the confident woman in that poem?

It’s the fire in my eyes, and the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet. I’m a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.

Everyone I’ve ever looked up to, from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Clinton and Oprah, at some point they all looked up to Maya Angelou. She shined for them all.

Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.

We call her a poet, but really, she was our favorite teacher, our other mother. Every little bird, we all have a song and she encouraged us to sing them to each other. The nation grieved when she died on Wednesday at age 86. We lost someone we love and someone who actually loved us enough to share her story, her dreams, her aspirations.

I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.

“It’s not one specific work that stands out when we talk about Maya Angelou’s impact,” says Kansas City rapper Les Izmore. “It’s her. That voice, that smile and that laugh, the strength, the power, the wisdom. Every time she spoke you had to pay attention. If she was on TV or in the paper or had a new book, you paid attention. Your parents taught you to appreciate her. She inspired me without me even knowing she inspired me. She was family.”

We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.

Natasha El Scari was in high school when she discovered “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou,” a book she still has to this day. The 38-year-old Kansas City poet says the spark was immediate.

“I had already been writing, but when I read her, that was it for me for poets,” she says. “For a long time, I didn’t want to let anybody else in. You didn’t have to have a Ph.D to understand her art. Anyone could access her, and that is huge for poetry.

“There was power in the simplicity of her language. There was power in the way that she spoke about the experience of being an African-American woman, yet the human spirit was the pervasive theme. That is one of the greatest challenges of being an African-American woman, to tell your unique story but connect to everyone.”

And say simply, very simply, with hope, Good morning.

“(We were) black girls living in suburbia, (so) our parents made a very conscientious decision to give us black literature, and that certainly included Maya Angelou,” says Cristin Blunt, an English teacher at Horizons Alternative School in Mission. “One of the first books I got was ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ but I didn’t consider her to be a black writer, I considered her to be an American writer. She embodied what it meant to be an American, to have this rich cultural experience, a tie to your family, to your church, to your community. It transcended all racial lines.”

But it was Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” that would strike Cristin to her core. “I remember feeling so much hope and promise on that day.” She would go on to recite it throughout high school for speech and debate, and it was the promise of hope in the morning in that last sentence that sticks with her.

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.

Her words offer strength but also require you to think through them in the context of your own life, says Dawn Taylor of Prairie Village. Even if you didn’t share her life experience, you could relate to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” says Taylor, co-founder of Red Dirt Shop, an accessories company dedicated to clean water accessibility. “Her depth, resilience and brilliance — to be able to teach so many life lessons without being preachy, her gift was so powerful.”

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

I will remember her. We all will. Maya Angelou has moved a nation with her words. Albums, books, movies, the White House — she is everywhere. A lifelong artist, she shared herself with us. She gave to us so unconditionally. She beamed a bright light of inspiration to the world, she made us feel hope, she made us feel courage, she made us feel loved. And through her work, that love is forever.

My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.

Mission accomplished, Maya.

Jeneé Osterheldt’s column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To reach her, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

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