“I’m a woman
– Maya Angelou
Today, I present to you the one and only, Maya Angelou. As anxieties about a worldwide pandemic give way to anxieties about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we can find strength in her story of hope and heroism. May this brief tribute inspire you to become the phenomenal person God has in mind for you to be.
Look Back Forgivingly
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in 1928 in St Louis, Missouri. Her brother nicknamed her, “Maya,” as in “Mya sister.”
She grew up during the Great Depression and her teen years took place during World War II. It was a frightening, dangerous time in the world. But the greatest danger Maya would face lurked in her own home.
Maya’s parents broke up when she was very little. As a result, life became unstable for her. She was taken from her parents to live with her grandmother in relative comfort and safety, then back with her mom, where it was not safe.
The event that would scar her innocent life took place when her mother wasn’t around. On that horrific day, her mother’s boyfriend sexually abused and raped Maya. She was seven years old. When she told her brother what happened, he told the grown-ups, and the man went to jail briefly. When he was released after only one day, Maya’s uncles did not feel justice had been served. Four days later, the man was found murdered.
Young Maya blamed herself. As if she hadn’t suffered enough, she now felt responsible for the man’s death. So deep was her trauma that she stopped speaking and became mute. From the age of seven to twelve, she didn’t speak a word. In her biography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she explains: “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
During this silent period, she went back to live with her grandmother, who found a teacher for her. Under the nurture and tutelage of “Mrs. Bertha Flowers,” young Maya discovered her love for literature. Not only did Mrs. Flowers introduce school-age Maya to William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe but also to Black female writers like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.
Furthermore, Mrs. Flowers said, “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.” Maya did love poetry, so she spoke it, found her voice again, and the rest is history. She later wrote, “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present gratefully.”
Reinvent Yourself Daily
In his book, Hero on a Mission, Donald Miller identifies four characters in every story — the victim, the villain, the hero, and the guide. He explains that in our own life stories, each of us will experience pain and somehow respond to it. How we respond determines what we will become — a helpless victim, a bullying villain, an inspiring hero, or a powerful guide. In her lifetime, Maya grew from victim to hero to beloved guide.
She once wrote: “Each of us has that right, that possibility, to invent ourselves daily. If a person does not invent herself, she will be invented. So, to be bodacious enough to invent ourselves is wise.”
Maya practiced the powerful, bodacious life she preached. She became a poet, a singer, a dancer, an activist, a professor, and an author. Her accomplishments are staggering:
- Active in the Civil Rights Movement, working with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
- Author of thirty-six books
- Winner of three Grammys (for spoken poetry)
- Awarded over 30 honorary degrees
- Became the first African American woman in U.S. history to recite the presidential inaugural poem
- Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the USA’s highest civilian honor
She died in 2014, but her achievements continue. This year, 2022, her image was depicted on a quarter by the U.S. Mint — the first Black woman so honored. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said: “Each time we redesign our currency, we have the chance to say something about our country — what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society. I’m very proud that these coins celebrate the contributions of some of America’s most remarkable women, including Maya Angelou.”
Artist Emily Damstra found inspiration in one of Maya’s most iconic poems, Still I Rise. On the quarter you see Maya in a majestic pose, like the dancer she was, arms widespread against the backdrop of a bird in flight, with rays of sunlight rising above her, sublimely. I imagine she would have loved it.
She may have been an innocent victim at one time, but she was bodacious enough to invent herself.
Live Life Bodaciously
This morning, children in Ukraine may awaken to the sounds of gunfire, the smell of smoke, and the sight of bombed-out buildings. Along with the national suffering, some children will have lost a loved one in the Russian assault. Some will lose their own lives.
Like young Maya, we live in a time of global unrest. It’s an anxious time for parents and our children are anxious. It’s not easy to be present gratefully. We find it difficult to look back forgivingly. It’s a challenge to look forward prayerfully, rather than fearfully. It’s hard to survive, much less thrive. So how can we live our lives bodaciously — boldly, fiercely, and valiantly?
Maya did it by writing. She processed her pain privately then told her story publicly. She was hurt and angry. Wounded by the violation of a wicked man towards an innocent girl, she was also indignant, furious that our young continue to be violated and that perpetrators continue to go unpunished. So she turned her pain into purpose, her anger into advocacy, and her catastrophe into compassion. I can hear the One called, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” say, “Go, thou, and do likewise.” And I say, “Amen. Amen. Yes.”
Maya rose to live bodaciously, saying, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
One could do worse than to start every day with a prayer like this:
“Jesus, help me to not only survive but to thrive. To look back forgivingly, to reinvent myself daily, and to live my life bodaciously — with passion, compassion, humor, and style.”
Think about it…
- What parts of Maya’s story touch you?
- Which of her words move you?
- How has life hurt you?
- How might you invent yourself?
- How will you live bodaciously?
If you would share your thoughts with me or this post with a friend, I would be so happy.
Steve – firstname.lastname@example.org