I found out about Maya Angelou’s passing from a new friend while visiting Uganda. Access to the internet was sporadic and I hadn’t checked Twitter for a glimpse of what was happening in the world. When he told me I slapped him on the arm (a terrible reflex I have when I’m shocked or angry) because in my mind I imagined her picture and words disappearing forever. But then I realised, people like her don’t really die, they live on forever.
I remember the first time I encountered her work. I was in a library looking for something new. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for but I knew it when I saw it. It was an anthology of work by African-American women. The first poem in the anthology was Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman. I couldn’t believe the treasure that was in the book. It was my first discovery of black women who wrote and wrote about things that mattered to my teenage mind. Yes, they were African-American but they made me receptive to the idea that writing and ideas matter. And black women can write and many have believed that their voices and ideas matter.
After poring over the anthology I made it my job to find more work by women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and read whatever I could find (soon after I discovered a book Zenzele by Nozipho J Maraire — this was the first book I read written by an African woman). I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Maya Angelou’s collection of essays and poems with gusto. Her voice had a conviction and a rhythm. Typically, my favourite became Phenomenal Woman. By the time I finished high school it had become a mantra and I liked the idea of having a sway in my hips or not having to jump about or talk real loud in order to be heard.
During my first term at Rhodes I had a few jarring moments that brought me back to my reality: that one can be in the numerical majority but be culturally marginalised. It took an English tutorial (and introduction to philosophy) for me to realise that the work of the black writers I was discovering were not actually the norm. The voices of black intellectuals (especially women) came much later in my education. At the end of first term the tutor had asked us to bring a poem we would read and share with the rest of the group. It was the end of our first poetry module and we had covered the work of poets (mostly white men — I still have the anthology as evidence, compiled by Dan Wylie) preparing us for the launch into the anthologies by Seamus Heaney and Gerad Manley Hopkins (more white men).
So I decided to take along Phenomenal Woman. Before I read the piece I announced the title assuming that everyone would know the poet. I was the only person in my tutorial who knew the poem and the poet. I was confused: How could they not know one of the best poets alive? I naively believed that everyone knew about this important woman who expressed the joys and heaviness of being human and more importantly, a black woman. She wasn’t a poet like William Wordsworth or Sylvia Plath. She had the timbre of a familiar voice; someone I could have met and sat with and chatted with about all the things that pain me and bring me joy. And she would have listened.
Women like Maya Angelou (notice I can’t just say Maya or Dr Maya Angelou) gave me a different way of seeing the world. I am the cliché: another black woman whose life was changed by her words. Maya Angelou’s existence, her stories and her voice will be with me forever. Her work made me question why there aren’t more women writing about their lives? Her work made me more receptive to work by Nontsizi Mgqwetho, a black, South African woman who wrote poetry in the Xhosa newspaper Isigidimi Sabantsundu in the 1920s.
I don’t think of Maya Angelou as a role model. She’s just Maya Angelou: someone who gave others the space to be and believe in the importance of their convictions and thoughts about the world. I’m not really sad she’s passed on (we all saw that coming) because she’s left us with so much more. She left us with her poetry and her words, which will live on forever. Thank you Maya Angelou.