“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou (Letter to My Daughter, 2009)
With apologies to my wife, I have a crush on Maya Angelou, so when Apple resurrected her inimitable voice reading excerpts from her poem, Human Family, during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to remind us that “we are more alike, my friends, then we are unalike,” I was happy. (If you’d like to listen to her read the full poem without the iPhone sales pitch, click HERE.)
I can’t remember my introduction to Angelou, although it was probably her reading of On the Pulse of Morning for the Clinton inauguration in 1993. What I can remember is that something led me to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of seven autobiographies that is worth it just for the title (although she snagged it from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem). But the book itself, my goodness, it sucker punched my heart. It tells of Angelou’s first seventeen years of life set in Arkansas, St. Louis, and California. Her story is interesting, sure, but as a white man now with ties to all three areas, it was (and continues to be) heart-wrenching.
If you didn’t know, Angelou’s childhood included being a victim of rape, racism, and sexism, and if that wasn’t enough, abandonment, guilt, and homelessness, all culminating in giving birth to a son at age sixteen. And then there was the rest of her life, where she experienced fame and prestige as actor and activist, author and poet, composer and director, professor and speaker—among other things. As the epigraph proclaims, her life is a testament to the idea that it is not required that difficult circumstances diminish your soul.
Or, more poetically stated, though caged, you can always sing.
In 2014, I was thrilled to see that Angelou was scheduled to speak at a Pepperdine event, and with my wife’s blessing, purchased three (expensive) tickets so that I could introduce Maya Angelou to my daughters, too. Sadly, the event was canceled due to her poor health not long before she passed on from this life.
I thought about crying.
But I chose to sing.