A Brush with Greatness

Ten years ago I met Maya Angelou. She was in Austin to deliver a lecture that held us all in thrall for more than two hours. I was first captivated by her height–at six feet tall she towered over me–and by that unmistakable voice. Rich and slow as honey. Tinged with smoke and spirits. A face marked by her extraordinary experiences and overlaid with incredible humanity and grace. When I learned yesterday that she had died at the age of 86, I felt it as a personal loss.

search As a child she experienced abandonment, unspeakable abuse, and the after effects of a murder she felt was her fault. As an adult she shaped herself into a Renaissance woman who wrote poems, essays, and a multi-volume autobiography. At various times she was a dancer, a streetcar conductor, a political activist and a college professor.  She wrote and read “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s first inaugural, a poem full of hope and promise that became a bestseller.

I remember seeing her on TV once, when she was reading at a book festival somewhere. In the audience was a beautiful young black woman who asked Maya to read a poem. “Read Steal Our Eyes”  is what I thought the young woman said. I sat in front of the TV  frowning, trying to figure it out. Steal Our Eyes? What did that mean?

But Maya began reading the poem and I realized the title was ” Still I Rise.”  It’s about claiming one’s dignity, rising from slavery to make a place for herself at life’s table. It’s too long to quote in its entirety here, but here are a few lines to whet your appetite for the entire poem, which encapsulates the life of this extraordinary woman.

You may write me down in history/With your bitter twisted lies, /You may tread me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I ‘ll rise…Just like the moons and like the suns/With the certainty of tides/Just like hopes springing high/Still I’ll rise…I am the dream and the hope of the slave/I rise/I rise/I rise.

Rest in Peace, Maya Angelou. You wlll be missed.