I was traveling when Dr. Maya Angelou died, away from my poetry community in Washington, D.C.

But my Facebook feed was crowded with tributes and powerful remembrances, as writers, survivors, and truth tellers chronicled the impact of Dr. Angelou’s life and words on their own journeys:

Celebrating Maya Angelou's Life

Burns Library, Boston College/Flickr

“She said something between poems,” wrote John Blake, a Richmond, Virginia teaching artist and the director of Educational Quotient of the first time he saw Dr. Angelou read. “She said, ‘Just because one sees signs of their destination, that doesn’t mean one has arrived.’… I woke up… I left with an unfathomable sense of purpose. That afternoon, $60 in hand, instead of buying $60 worth of dope, I went to the Rutgers Bookstore and bought I know why the Caged Bird Sings. I wrote again. I’ve been writing since. I’ll always write. I see signs. I have not arrived.”

Freelance writer and spoken word artist Danielle Reed actually met Dr. Angelou: “All that would come out of my star-struck mouth was, ‘Do you know who you are?’ She says, ‘Of course I do, don’t you know who YOU are?’ at which point the entire room explodes laughing…The answer to the question will always be, ‘I’m a writer.'”

These are working-class writers, writers of color — precisely those voices so long excluded from our national story. Maya Angelou helped them find their voices and speak their stories loud and clear.

The outgoing Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, in the Washington Post, writes movingly about how she began to tell the truth of the abuse she suffered: “Looking back on it now, I see what a crucial moment it was for me to come across Maya Angelou’s book [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] in the stacks — how necessary it was for me to begin to speak in some way against the silence of what was unspoken in that house.” It was the beginning of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s journey to becoming a writer.

Maya Angelou was an activist, too, marching and raising money for the Civil Rights Movement. On Democracy Now! the poet Sonia Sanchez tells the story of Angelou scaling the fence at the United Nations when Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of Congo, was murdered in a CIA-sponsored coup. “There was no separation for us between our art and activism at all,”Sanchez says.

And then there is the woman herself. Many television interviews can be found on YouTube, but one of our favorites, here at Split This Rock, is a moving conversation about art, the movement, Malcolm and Martin, and the ways words are alive. It’s a four-part interview of Angelou by the comedian Dave Chappelle for The Iconoclasts. Check it out.

Finally, I share with you, below, a poem written since Dr. Angelou’s death by two young, male African American high school students, Malachi Byrd and Cedric Harper. Dressed in black, standing side by side, touching the backs of each others’ hands, Malachi and Cedric recited the poem from memory on Saturday night, before an audience of 300, helping their school, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, win first place in the D.C. area’s Louder Than a Bomb High School Poetry Slam Team Competition. I gave the poem a 10.

May 28, 2014

On the pulse of the morning,
a hummingbird flaunts
its wings, airplane smooth,
moving to evade complacency.

A parrot recites a man’s poem
with no understanding of content,
just happy to have a voice.
May 28th 2014 our world faced
a brave and startling truth:

A phenomenal woman,
Six Feet of Renaissance
and righteousness,
had her song flung up to heaven,
had her story echo loudly
with no cave to contain it.

Still living proof
that our words can
breathe and prosper,
better than us.

My voice has been
touched by an angel,
someone who taught me
that power
is more than syllables and syntax.

It’s truth that is the pillars
of our Kingdoms.
Maya, you transformed
from hating your complexion —

from despising your appearance —
to realizing integrity
is more beautiful
than any body.

From trying to be the light
at the end of the tunnel
to embracing your darkness
and finding the light in you,
in me.

Maya —
You have risen.
You are proof that a silver lining
can exist after the clouds
have evaporated.

You are a reminder
that inequality is not set in stone,
that the rock still cries out to us today.

Maya, your words revived our trajectory,
they saw Dr. King’s March
and were alive to watch his soul
salute the heavens,
now watching as Obama
is saluted by Martin’s oppressors.

Now I know why your caged bird sings:
To find safe haven
in our skin,
and sanctity
in American mirrors.

To tell boys like me,
raised between XX chromosomes
and XXL,
that a man’s body
is not a cage
but a bird
Life does not frighten me.

Tell the ocean’s waves to sing
without the moon’s consent.
Tell boys like me
to wash the nigga and nicotine
out of our denim jeans,
rinse out violence
and come clean through our voices,
through hurricanes
that fractured my wings.

From a rough nest that could not nurture,
and a cage that wouldn’t budge
unless my words unlocked it,
I rise.

Using poetry to make
my poverty beautiful,
finding the Roman and Mongol
in Trinidad and Eastover,
I rise.

My caged confidence
breaking free from the confines of my shadow —
I rise.

With the heart of a woman,
breaking the facade of gender roles,
with my reflection pool
filled with other faces —

you stoned motivation
into my system,
carving my outlook on life.

you taught me to bind my
body’s broken elements
into a masterpiece,
that autobiographies can be
both past and prophecy.

You taught me to write
my story
into existence.
And I did.

You taught me to investigate
every syllable,
even those in your last name.
Now angels o u the ovation
a finished song deserves.

you’ve helped us commit
resistance to memory,
to use my oppression as ink
instead of as bullets.
To use my isolation as
fuel instead of roadblock.

You’ve taught us
that our song is never done
until we teach others
to sing.

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Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is executive director of Split This Rock Poetry Festival and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. SplitThisRock.org
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

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