Maya Angelou, poet, writer, actress and activist, died this morning at the age of 89.
The very first piece of Angelou’s writing I read was in high school and, entirely unsurprising, it was “Still I Rise.”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
I still get a tingling on the back of my neck from the memory of how I felt reading that poem for the first time. I was a confused adolescent white male living in a small white town. Yet because I was raised in a more open-eyed home and more well-read in general I thought I knew stuff, then. I didn’t know shit.
“Out of the huts of history’s shame” led me to more Angelou, other books and other writings about what I discovered to be a past hidden from me in plain sight. She helped open up a social world that was not my own and yet to which I was inevitably indebted by being born on the benefiting end of its exploitation. I know a little bit more, now, in-part thanks to her. But I’m not so far away from knowing shit that I can pretend that this is a journey that will ever end, but just a path to explore and know and pass on until I die.
In an interview from last year about her most recent memoir, reposted today, Angelou was asked what she wanted written on her tombstone. Laughing, she responded “I did my best, I hope you do the same.” From my small corner, at least, you did. Thank you. Rest in peace.