Maya Angelou's poetry was everything to me.
It reached down into my southwest Georgia hometown and inspired me to write, and her death Wednesday sent me into mourning. Before I knew it, tears slipped down my cheeks. I felt weepy, an emotion strung out all day by the assault of Facebook status updates heralding Maya Angelou's great life and text messages from family members wanting to know if I had heard.
The daughter of two educators, I grew up in Tifton, a small town where the railroad tracks were the dividing line for white and black life. Born brown, my family crossed the tracks to shop, do business and go to school. Well after public schools were integrated, my peers nominated me to represent them as the school's black homecoming queen in 1993. It was a time before cable TV had too many channels and electronic devices sucked away our souls and doused people's desire to sit and share with each other.
Determined that black youth in our community would learn more about ourselves than the ridiculously scant paragraphs on slavery and the civil rights movement in school textbooks, my parents helped create Tifton's black arts festival. The annual event brought artists from all over the country, including griots, dancers, steel drum players and singers. The highlight of the three-day festival was the poetry competition. My participation was not optional. One year, I recited Langston Hughes' classic, I, Too. Another year, it was Nikki Giovanni's Ego Tripping. And finally, I discovered Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Woman. It was a showstopper. Its words leapt off the page and demanded to be spoken with sass, punctuated by hand gestures, back arching and a little hip swaying.
I'm a woman
The next year, I chose Still I Rise and socked it to the competition again. First place and a $100 savings bond in hand, Maya Angelou — I always call her by her first and last name as a sign of respect — and I made a formidable team.
That feeling, of course, was the experience of so many who recited Maya Angelou's work. But in my youthful ignorance, I thought she belonged to me. Between oratorical contests, I got to know Maya Angelou's voice, how she could turn a phrase just so and capture the human experience, especially the journey of the downtrodden, the poor, the black. And I wanted to do that.
When I was in high school, my father drove me 45 miles to Valdosta State College to hear Maya Angelou speak. It was 1992. Two years earlier, I had turned down an offer to join my parents in Atlanta to see Nelson Mandela at Georgia Tech because MC Hammer was performing the same evening in Albany. But there was no way I was missing Maya Angelou. That February night in a packed auditorium, the poet held forth. Standing 6 feet tall, she was regal. Her voice was at once melodious and thunderous, commanding attention and respect. She recited snatches of Phenomenal Woman, and I sat ramrod straight. The master was teaching, and I had come to learn.
Maya Angelou's work validated me and dared me to be confident at a time when I was a rail of a gal with bucked teeth, thick glasses and low self esteem. Phenomenal Woman, to me, is the secular, womanist equivalent of Philippians 4:13, the grown woman's version of The Little Engine that Could. I have recited that poem at least three dozen times on programs, in speeches and in my parents' living room in front of company at my father's request. My mom says it made me famous. Maybe not, but it saved me. Even now when nerves attack before a big speech, important interview or difficult conversation, I get in character, recite a stanza under my breath and am instantly prepared for whatever I'm facing.
Maya Angelou had a distinguished career, including an impressive turn as a memoirist. Her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a story of rape and inward retreat, was too heavy for a girl like me looking for escape in literature. I stuck to the poems.
Puttin' down that do-rag
Tightenin' up my 'fro
Wrappin' up in Blackness
Don't I shine and glow?
...Now ain't they bad?
An' ain't they Black
...An' ain't they fine?
I wanted to write like that — clean and soulful, in unabashed celebration of all cultures but especially mine, Southern, black, female. I became a journalist because I didn't know how to become a poet. Nikki Giovanni spoke at the junior college in Tifton and someone in the audience asked her how to become a poet. Her advice? Live. And so that's what I have set about doing, strengthening the muscle of my experiences and my craft by meeting people and telling their stories.
My mother laments that greats like Maya Angelou are leaving us and no one seems to be rising to take their places. I beg to differ. We are here, writers of every hue, ethnicity, religion and gender, all over this world, trying in some small way to find our voices and share our stories.
'Cause I'm a woman
I write because Maya Angelou said I could.
Sherri Day is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.