I was a vorascous reader. I loved anything written by Judy Blume. The Babysitters Club, the Boxcar Children, and the silly Amelia Bedelia had my loyalty. I was always on my best behavior when we went to library (yes, it was an event, not a class). I wanted to be the first chosen so I could grab any new books our librarian bought. I was so in love with books, my father knew never to send me to my room for punishment. I would happily read for hours longer than my punishment required.
A wave of nostalgia comes over me when I think about these books. But I also remember constantly reading about ruddy cheeks, porcelain skin, and sandy hair. Faces turned red, ponytails swung, and blue eyes shone. Though these characters made me laugh and cry, they couldn't teach me about being a black girl. Entering their world was leaving my own because very little reflected my actual experience of the world.
Until Maya. My stepmom has been an English teacher for decades. When her books hit our shelves at home, I was enthralled. Running my index finger along the worn spines, I read for the first time the names Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Ntozake Shange and so many others. But first, there was Maya. My stepmom knew Phenomenal Woman by heart, and when those words rolled off her tongue as she swung her hips to the rhythm of the lines, my eyes were wide with fascination: "I'm not cute or built to fashion model size… the span of my hips… the bend of my hair…" Phenomenal Woman really was ME! Not just me, but my stepmom, my mother, my aunties, my grandmothers. Maya's poetry was the first reflection of myself- of black women- on a page.
I was hooked. I wanted more and found Still I Rise. She had me at the first line, "You may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies…" Now the beauty of poetry is that we bring ourselves to it, and for me, Maya was talking about black history. And then she talked about being sassy, hated and sexy. She equated blackness with the wondrous ocean. She even talked about the way our thighs meet! Revolutionary. Maya knew me, and these were just the popular poems- a scratch on the surface of her plethora of writings.
Maya's poems and books were both balm and reviver. Her words were healing to little black girls like me who who rarely saw our reflection in the wider world. Her words didn't just heal us, they revived us. We were soothed in one line and made defiant in the next. She dared us to hang our heads low- "Oh, no you don't!" Maya would shout from the page! She told us we are beautiful as we are.
While I am glad these poems mentioned above have transcended race, that many people have found her words eloquent and stirring- to little black girls, her words were life. Never was one more gracefully defiant than Maya. We love these poems now, but consider the era when she wrote them. Her words may have reached all of America, but black women, black girls knew they were for us.
And her books became an open door. The accessibility of her words made you want more. She was encouraging me to go read Nikki and Ntozake and Audre and Alice. And I did. We did.
As if this were not enough, Maya lived her words. She walked with grace, spoke the truth, and made us laugh. She lived. She was a writer and poet. She was a journalist and actor. She was a professor and producer. She was a director and activist. Maya didn't just tell us we could do anything, she showed us.
So I'll let the world grieve for Maya. It is only right that someone so beloved by America should be mourned by them all. But forgive me if I hand out special cloth tissues to wipe the tears of sistahs because Maya was always ours. We were always hers.
Rest well, Marguerite. We promise to tell our daughters what you said.