It seems that lately I learn of breaking news via social media. Today was no exception. After completing my morning workout I grabbed a banana, plopped onto my bed and started scrolling through Facebook on my iPhone. I immediately see that Maya Angelou’s death is trending. I Google to verify that the news is true and sigh when I realize it is. More than twenty years have passed since my middle school Language Arts teacher, Ms. Eickelberg, introduced me to Angelou’s work. A passionate and thorough teacher Ms. Eick had many of the greats of the African-American literary canon within her personal library. She stored her books at the back of her classroom, immaculately organized, each one stamped with a notary denoting her ownership.
In the Seventh Grade I asked Ms. Eick if I could borrow “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. As usual she agreed and had me fill out her library card. As I read it I felt the same gratitude that came over me when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. She gets it, I thought to myself. When Angelou wrote of how her beloved brother Bailey was praised and adored for having dark skin while her similar shade of brown was crudely insulted as looking like feces I understood how she felt. When she shared the painful story of her rape as a child I was stunned by her openness. We don’t talk about these things in our families often, let alone in public.And when she detailed her earlier experiences with sex and the conception of her son I was surprised but happy. Maya Angelou was of my maternal Grandma’s generation, and older Black women are usually reticent to speak about their sex lives in such a manner. Angelou’s candid voice would help many young African-American women work their way through that same terrain decades later.
In their headline on Angelou’s death the New York Times calls Angelou a ‘lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South’. I found those words to be quite fitting, and it is one of the reasons I find her passing to be so saddening. My elders are leaving me. Next to children there is no group of people closer to my heart than elderly Southern Black folks, women in particular. In Angelou and others I see my beloved maternal Grandma Rose and my feisty Aunt Lula. I see millions of African-Americans who sought ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in a nation that actively fought to deprive them of it. But to paraphrase one of Angelou’s noted poems still they rose. Our elders survived, lived and loved, providing an unforgettable example.
I understand death on an intellectual level but the news stings just the same. I always KNEW my Grandma would die but that knowledge didn’t prepare me for the shock of seeing her in her casket, unable to resist the urge to touch her arm and being taken aback by how cold and hard it felt. I knew Maya Angelou was getting up in age but that knowledge didn’t make the headlines this morning any easier to digest. Our elders are leaving, and with them opens a void that no others can truly fill. When I was a child Southern Black women held me in their ample bosoms and slipped me peppermint and butterscotch candies in church. When I was a teenager and feeling myself too much they sternly checked me. And when I acted a fool as an adult they told me about myself but loved me all the same. It is those elders who are passing. They were such an integral part of my life and that of so many others! It’s hard to imagine what the community will look like when they are all gone. And as that generation continues to leave I miss them more and more.