By: Rebecca Slocum
Happy Birthday to Maya Angelou: author, poet, playwright, singer, songwriter, director, screen producer, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, historian, performer, and civil rights activist. Today, she would have been 91. Dr. Angelou is obviously known for many things. One more distinction to add to that list is the Most Banned Author in the United States. Her autobiographical debut, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is frequently challenged for its descriptions of sexually explicit scenes, including rape and molestation; encouraging homosexuality; and being “anti-white”. Despite its fame and prowess, I have, unfortunately, not read it yet (it’s on my perpetually growing TBR). I was actually introduced to Angelou’s works first through her poetry.
When I was 19, I had the privilege of hearing Maya Angelou speak at the University of Houston. My roommate and I had terrible seats; we sat on the highest level of the auditorium, way in the back. But honestly, it didn’t matter. Dr. Angelou’s rich voice carried throughout the entire room. I don’t think she even used a microphone.
She spoke for about an hour, talking about race and injustice; equality and tolerance; love and forgiveness. Her passion and fire lit up the sizable crowd spilling out of the auditorium. And while I could recognize that I was experiencing something unique, something powerful, I also am ashamed to admit that I felt a severe sense of discomfort at her words. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I left Dr. Angelou’s speech feeling uneasy and out of place. When I got back to my dorm room, I told my roommate how I was feeling. She was quiet for a minute. Then she kindly, but firmly called me out on my privilege, my internal biases, and my narrow world view.
Initially, I was defensive. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. Reluctantly, I thought about what she was saying. I grew up in a mostly white, middle class neighborhood. My parents had good jobs, I went to private school, and in general, had zero major concerns other than being a kid. I was the very definition of privilege, and though I may not have consciously realized it, I did view the world through a very narrow lens.
Later that night, I opened my computer browser and searched for Maya Angelou. I scrolled through her biography, her many awards, her collected works. I had heard of the famous, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but had never read it; I did not know any of her other works. A poem entitled “On the Pulse of Morning” caught my eye. Dr. Angelou wrote this poem at the request of President Bill Clinton to read at his inauguration in 1993. The poem is a call for us to put an end to violence, war, and division; it is a plea to remember our humanity and, despite our tumultuous past, to surge forward in building a unified future. It is a prayer for kindness, acceptance, and ultimately, forgiveness and love.
It was an echo of what I had heard that night in the auditorium, woven together in the melodious and rhythmic way of a traditional spiritual song. This time, instead of pushing back against my discomfort, I surged forward. I still remember the goosebumps prickling on my arms as I read the end of the poem.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
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 and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Fear breeds intolerance and anger. Fear opens the door for injustice and violence. Fear paves the way for ignorance and apathy.
Dr. Angelou’s words urge us all to push past our fears, our anger, our hate. To find freedom in the good, the kind, the welcoming. To embrace our neighbor, both human and the world. To rise and feel the pulse of a new day.
Her words and message woke me up that day. She, like my roommate, kindly but firmly invited me to open my eyes, roll up my sleeves, and work for change. In part, Dr. Angelou is responsible for my wanting to be a librarian. I do not use my own words to beget change, but I delight in selecting the powerful words of authors to inspire my students, just as I was inspired by the powerful words of Maya Angelou.
Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou!
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.