Holy woman

Maya Angelou extended holiness to some would-be ministers who continue to lighten “heavy loads” in the church and the world.

By Bill Leonard

She did not speak for five years. Raped by her mother’s boyfriend, “Mr. Freeman,” when she was 8 years old, Maya Angelou stopped speaking until she was 13, traumatized by sexual assault and her fear that Freeman’s subsequent murder was somehow connected to the words she used against him. She spoke only to her beloved brother Bailey, but, as she recalled in the prizewinning memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “If I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die. … I had to stop talking. … I began to listen to everything.”

When she started speaking again, “thanks to poetry,” Maya Angelou’s voice, earthy and transcendent in print and in person, carried us into dangerous and irresistible places of mind and spirit. Her poem, On the Pulse of the Morning, read at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, uses words and images never before articulated at a  presidential inaugural: “You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot. … You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare, praying for a dream.”

When the 13-year-old finally broke her silence, the results would be transforming for all kinds of folks.

St. Louis-born Marguerite Johnson became Maya Angelou, poet, author, actress, dancer, singer, professor and prophet, who died on May 28 in her Winston-Salem, N.C., home at age 86. Like innumerable individuals at Wake Forest University and in Winston-Salem, I was a recipient of her grace and kindness, extended in ways that incarnated the holy. That realization began with my students at WFU where Angelou was Reynolds Professor of American Studies. In 1996, my first year at the university, I taught Religion 101 to first-year undergraduates. Early in the semester I ask an African-American student if she planned to take Professor Angelou while at WFU.

“I want to,” she replied, “but I’ve been so touched by her writing that I’m afraid I’d begin to cry every time she entered the class.” At commencement four years later she reported having indeed taken Angelou’s class. “Transforming,” she declared. “Holy woman,” I replied.    

The first time I met Maya Angelou, I gave her a funeral home fan, a hand-held liturgical accessory that for generations broke the steamy southern air at sweat-soaked revivals, a picture of Jesus on one side and a funeral home advertisement on another. It was commencement 1997 and hot as blazes so I grabbed a handful of fans from my office and tried to give them out to my refined faculty colleagues. No one obliged until I stutteringly offered one to Dr. Angelou and her platform guest the novelist Toni Morrison, there to receive an honorary doctorate. She took it gladly. “I grew up with funeral home fans,” she said.

It was true. In Caged Bird she recalled revivals at Texarkana’s Mount Zion Baptist Church when, “the serious shouters had already made themselves known, and their fans (cardboard advertisement from Texarkana’s largest Negro funeral home) and lacy white handkerchiefs waved high in the air.” A holy woman, not too proud to fan.

When the WFU Divinity School held its opening convocation in October 1999, Maya Angelou walked to the pulpit of Wait Chapel and began to sing: “O pray my wings are gonna fit me well, I’m gonna lay down this heavy load; I tried them on at the gates of hell, I’m gonna lay down this heavy load.”

She told the entering class how proud she was of them because they had come to lay down “the heavy loads of prejudice, ignorance, racism, sexism and ageism, heavy loads which in some cases you inherited … brought from home … even from your churches. … Here you have a chance to lay down the loads. And when you do … how much brighter the world will be?”

She read a poem, written for the occasion, that concluded with a “brave and startling truth:” “We are neither devils nor divine. … We are the possible; we are the miraculous; we are the true wonders of this world.” A holy woman, who extended holiness to some would-be ministers who continue to lighten “heavy loads” in the church and the world.

She returned to the Divinity School two years later, providentially scheduled to address students on 9/18/2001, one week after the World Trade Center disaster. She was at her New York apartment that day, Angelou recounted, made a pot of soup, and let people “come in and cry.” She talked about courage and some of the people she had known who exemplified it — her grandmother, James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and the emergency teams who risked their lives for others on that terrible New York day. “Sooner or later life tests us all,” she said. “We’d best know where to find courage before we need it,” adding, “Poetry puts starch in your backbone.”     

She left us that day with a verse from Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I shall die, but that is all I will do for death. … I will not map him a route to any’s door.” Courageous in death; holy in life; heavy load, laid down.

Maya Angelou 1928-2014.

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