On May 19, 2014, I had the opportunity to listen to what was likely Dr. Maya Angelou’s final interview with journalist and social activist Asha Bandele as part of a national conference call sponsored by the National CARES Mentoring Movement and the National Alliance of Faith and Justice’s PEN or PENCIL Program. A little more than a week later, the nation mourned her transition to the spirit world.
To the hundreds of us on the call, she was known simply as Dr. Maya and we knew that she was recuperating in her home in Winston Salem, North Carolina after a recent hospitalization. We were thankful for her effort to speak with us. Often pausing to excuse herself to gather her thoughts, we welcomed whatever wisdom she had to impart. When asked what was the one life lesson she wanted to impart to our nation’s youth, Dr. Maya told us, “courage was the most important virtue of all; you can’t be anything consistently without courage.” Her voice was raspy yet strong, loving and resolute, and I was really excited just to hear her speak in real time.
It is almost impossible to gauge the impact Dr. Maya had on the world and all the ways she helped make it better. A “Global Renaissance Woman,” Dr. Maya was truly one of the most influential voices of our time: Teacher, Poet, Writer, Dancer, Singer, Actress, Historian, Playwright, Social activist, and Presidential Inauguration Poet. I was first introduced to her as a fumbling teenage bookworm through her groundbreaking autobiography, “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings”. During the interview, Asha Bandele said to Dr. Maya that Caged Bird “opened a door” in her she did not know could be opened, and I completely understood what she meant. Reading her words opened a door inside me and gave me permission to find my voice– to find myself.
What is most striking to me about Dr. Maya is the way she used her gifts to empower people to love themselves and love each other. Her ability to build public will was phenomenal. When she spoke, people listened. She marched and worked and fought for equality alongside some of the greatest civil rights activists: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Stokley Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy, James Baldwin and the list goes on and on.
Dr. Maya didn’t just talk about justice, she moved us all forward toward justice, not knowing what the final outcome would look like. She was love’s greatest champion: love of self and love of community. She encouraged people to “try to be a rainbow in someone else’ cloud”. She wanted us to take care of ourselves and take care of each other.
Toward the end of the interview Dr. Maya reflected on the legacy of those who passed before her, her friends, Malcolm and Martin; she encouraged us to remember our elders and the wisdom they imparted to us. “It is wise to know where you come from, who spoke your name,” she said.
Indeed, Dr. Maya. We will speak your name, now and forever.
Image retrieved from MayaAngelou.com