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I’m Sorry, Maya Angelou, I Didn’t Understand You

maya angelou

My first exposure to you, Maya Angelou, was inside the folds of a cheesy Hallmark card when I was a pre-teen.

I was searching for the best card I could for Mother’s’ Day one year, and I came across a Hallmark design with pastel butterflies and flowers. The quotation inside bore your name, but I don’t remember what the words were specifically. I just remember rolling my eyes, shutting the card and putting it down. I disliked pastels, but more than that I truly disliked pithy sayings (even at a young age) designed for card-consumers to escape from writing their own true thoughts.

Life wasn’t a Hallmark card. So I put you down and walked away.

And I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I didn’t see the entirety of the work from which the pithy saying was taken.

I’m sorry I didn’t see the colour of your rich skin.

I’m sorry I didn’t see the poise in your spine, or hear the grace in your voice.

I saw only pastel butterflies and flowers, and assumed a corporation had generated you.

As the years passed by, I began to notice your face behind the Hallmark words.

I began to learn that a broken and healed, imperfect and lyrical, failed and succeeded life was behind the pastels. Dropping Hallmark away, I began to understand that there was a little girl who survived rape at age 8, who lived through the Jim Crow era, who brought music and words to Broadway, who bore her soul to people across the world, who penned some of the wisest words of the 20th and 21st centuries. But I only heard as a white youth. You were profound to me, but only through my lens of privilege.

It wasn’t until God began to peel away my lens — my many, many lenses — that I started to be humbled by you. It wasn’t until the Spirit melted the scales off of my eyes that I began to sit at your feet, wondering if you’d even accept me. It wasn’t until Jesus-the-Coloured-Man showed me a strong black woman, admonishing me to “Hush up! Listen up!”

Listening to you, Maya Angelou, I began to realize that I was a phenomenal woman.

Phenomenal woman. That’s me! maya angelou quote

Forgive me, Dr. Angelou, for not quite understanding you. So many degree of separation made you a Hallmark greeting card to me. But that was nearly 25 years ago (has it been so long?); today is an altogether different day.

What words am I speaking to the youth who walk through my doors?

When they scratch at the mosquito bites on their skins, what am I seeing? Their colour? Their skin? Their bites? Am I seeing the parasites attacking them?

What answers am I giving to children who ask tough questions? Am I reducing my stress by giving Hallmark card  replies? Or am I seeking to see the depth in an 8-year old’s inquiries, a 14-year old’s needs, and responding… phenomenally? What time am I giving to kids who want nothing more than my silence?

They don’t see, nor do they care to see, my tongue or hear my voice. They see my ears.

They want my lily-white (but sunburned in the summer) ears all to themselves so they can be assured that their perspectives will be stored somewhere safe. For birds, caged and uncaged to be able to sing, I need to release the room wide open. Am I doing that? If not, how can I do it better?

For how you lived, all I can say to you on the day of your death is: Thank you. As you rise now to meet God, still we rise as your sisters and mothers, cousins and aunts, friends and lovers “into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear.”

Rest now with your Lover, Eshet chayil.

Phenomenal Woman
By Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
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

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I am at a conference today and am going to be enjoying homemade waffles with hand picked berries and Canadian maple syrup; a spinach mushroom, and mozzarella egg white omelet; and a coconut milk yogurt smoothie for breakfast. 

Author Profile: @erinthomas

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