An Open Letter to Maya Angelou: Author, Poet, and Mother to Many of us . . .
If I were to write an open letter to a list of writers who have impacted my life since childhood, the list would start with Maya Angelou. In my old neighborhood, we had, “Play mommas,” those who in African American culture are what we call “Fictive Kin’. These women were approved by our parents. They were part of our everyday social fabric, women who joined in the community goal of helping us reach a healthy, productive, and spiritual adulthood. They would nurture, chastise, and comfort for the good of children and family.
As I begin thinking seriously about writing you this open letter Mrs. Angelou, my heart fills with sadness at your passing and joy at the nourishing words you left behind for us to feast upon when spiritually drained and emotionally famished. Um,um,um, what would I say?
Momma Angelou . . .
First, I want to say thank you for making my life brighter with books filled with memories from your childhood’s southern rural word-portrait landscape and adult global travel snap shots from tours with the cast of “Porgy and Bess’ to living in Egypt. Your critically observant interior thought-scape not only helped me sidestep several major culture war landmines in the late sixties, but it today gives light to my cloudy thoughts about twenty first century camouflaged ideological complexities and PC stereotypes waiting in ambush, hiding in discursively banal cultural shape shifting rhetoric.
At one point during my youth, you went from confidante to role model; you became that hip but wise aunt from “Out there in the world” whom I had never met, but watched on TV speaking poetry to the nation at a president’s inauguration. Youth are so hard to impress, but what a day! Many of my friends and I were so proud: we pronounced your name as if it was a rare golden diamond pearl.
During my early twenties, I would curl up on the sofa with hot tea or warm milk while watching reruns of your programs that promoted children’s literacy. On a rainy autumn day, you were always so “there,” in the moment. My momma also liked your poetry. She gave me a book of poems owned by my grandfather, a literate Black man born more than a century ago.
Your voice warm and encouraging word mastery brought back empowering memories of my momma in her eighties, slowly holding out her wrinkled hands and smiling proudly as she handed on to me, the next generation, a book that she loved to read that my grandfather, a literate Black man born more than a century ago, had owned and had given to her. It is a heavy book with gold-leafed trim on each page. It is a nature poetry book. My grandpa on my mother’s side of the family was a gardener who shared poetry with his family. My grandpa on my father’s side of the family was a farmer thought “deep.” He taught my daddy to meditate on life, to plant seed, nurture, and wait for harvest in what ever one endeavored.
My momma and daddy both loved plants. She was just like her daddy, loved roses. My daddy was just like his daddy, loved fruit, vegetables, tilling the land. And like their fathers and mothers before them, they both loved us, their children and planted much seed for future ripening and harvests.
They both knew somehow that I would be in the arts. Momma knew my secret love of poetry. She somehow knew I’d be a musician and a writer. She cultivated both in me. Daddy provided a home life for me to dig deep and root into narratives prosaic and poetic.
Momma Angelou, ya’ll shared similar soft voices, you know, love-infused voices with twinkling eyed mischievous smiles and full-bellied laughs waiting to burst into air with open delight.
When you came on TV., I’d stop and sit right down to listen to your vibrant recitations. You could “sho’ light it up” as the teens say about resonating, relevant spoken word. I beamed as you delivered your poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1993 inauguration of then newly elected president Bill Clinton. Also, you weren’t afraid to share other’s words with us.
A few years ago, your rendition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Jump Back Honey Jump Back” on the Arsenio Hall show put a swagger in Arsenio’s smile and laugh. Me? I was rolling on the floor, going “No she didn’t!” It was so hip, so live, so rhythmically right in the pocket. A smile still slides across my lips when that memory parties through my thoughts.
Recently, I read your “The Heart of A Woman.” Your life held so many bittersweet memories. Most history books do not do justice in retelling the micro-narrative complexities of Black Women’s lives during that era. Your woman’s eye captured and reproduced authentic instagrams and selfies that today’s women artists should study as they navigate today’s gender- inflected arts community gaze.
And, oh yes, your participation in Dr. Dorothy Height’s funeral inspired my courage to offer this letter of thanks, this tribute. You respected her old school Black tradition of leading by example. Both Dr. Height and you joined the mid -twentieth century struggle so that many of us in this generation can also lift voice to sing poems of, spin rhymes about, honor your legacy with spirit-life/love-words. Though fragile yourself, you celebrated her home going with a quiet, eloquent fanfare.
Our community used to have a saying: “Give them their flowers while they yet live.”
Momma Angelou, I do not know you personally, but I hope as a writer and poet to be included among your daughters. Your life is an inspiration, a pearl of love from God. Thank you for sharing. I am a better women because of so precious a gift.
Watch and enjoy Maya Angelou’s introduction to one of her last works Letter to My Daughter right after her 80th Birthday.
You are missed Maya Angelou, you are missed