A Seattle poet's tribute to Maya Angelou

Local poet Daemond Arrindell honors the late, great American writer in prose and verse.
Crosscut archive image.

Maya Angelou stumped for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Local poet Daemond Arrindell honors the late, great American writer in prose and verse.

My laptop currently has four different windows open. Each one to a different video or audio recording of Maya Angelou.

Since hearing of her passing, my social media dashboards have lit up with a vast array of examples of how majestic this artist, activist, intellectual and. dare I say it, Legend is. Or rather was. No, I was correct with “is”, as people everywhere, in light of her passing are beginning just like myself to reflect on her impact on us, and on the world around us. And if you, who happen to be reading this are having a similar experience, you’re recognizing not just the span of Maya Angelou’s reach, but the depth as well.

Crosscut archive image.I was young, likely no more than eight or nine, when my mom introduced me to her all-time favorite poem: “Phenomenal Woman.” At first it seemed too confident, almost conceited, but that was coming from the experiences of a young black boy, and speaks more about my own insecurities (and the limited ideas of women, especially black women I had been spoon-fed) than her words. The poem was perfectly appropriate as a mantra for the self-assured, just not for me. It took age and looking through the lenses of some of her other work for me to fully appreciate the power behind the empowerment that lies at the heart of her work. “Still I Rise,” an anthem of uplift, gave me that necessary poetic booster seat.

As I write this, I have to be honest, my instinct is to stop writing and just listen…to her, Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou, who didn’t consider herself wise, but “in root.” She saw herself as connected, to the past – the earth she was metaphorically planted in – but also to the young leaves sprouting. She chose not to look down upon those who came after but to look up at us, with love, to recognize the nutrients of experience and courage and love that she had within her to pass on. Griot that she was, she seemed to delight in this burden. Though, I doubt highly that she would have ever called it a burden.

“A person who’s well raised knows to respect the elders. That doesn’t mean you have to agree even a little bit with what the elder says, but you respect the elder…for surviving.”

Maya Angelou, whose autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” laid the path for other writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. The title has become a common phrase and metaphor — even amongst those who do not know her name or haven’t read the book — for fighting in spite of the limitations placed upon us, for recognizing the ways in which we can fight, even when we feel, or literally are, boxed in.

Maya Angelou, whose iconic writing may only have been rivaled by the aural power of her voice, which thousands upon thousands of us have come to know, and be comforted by, with its sass and playfulness balanced by a deep and rhythmic tone that speaks to a “knowing” that extends back centuries and is indicative of a true and worthy elder.

Maya Angelou, the revolutionary at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement who still, after all the tragedies to follow, had enough light within to look forward, to push forward, and spoke vehemently of the necessity to keep doing so. Why? Love. At the heart of everything she said and did, love.

“Love is a condition so powerful, it may be what keeps the stars in the firmament. It may be that which urges and pushes the blood in the veins. It takes courage to love someone, because you risk everything. Everything.”

And now, a poem in honor of Maya Angelou.

When She Rose

when she wasn't your momma, but taught your momma to sing,
when she gave the peacock plumage,
when she danced the power in a standing curve,
when she breathed into the ember to stoke the fire in the eyes,
when she smiled the honey in the hive,

when she coaxed the page to turn and convinced you holy,
when she showed you the bend of words, the hanging of truth
in our mouths,
in the books,
from the trees

when she was breath and memory in song,
and her very steps granted lighter shadows,
when she reminded and reminded and reminded
who we are, where we've been, what we carry
when her name was an invocation —
an invitation to stillness,
when she rose

— Daemond Arrindell

Photo of Maya Angelou speaking on behalf of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign courtesy of Wikipedia.


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