Local Writers Reflect on Maya Angelou’s Legacy

Her recent passing inspired tributes from around the world, but we looked closer to home to explore the influence of her work

Maya Angelou’s impact reached far and wide. Her recent passing at age 86 inspired tributes from around the world, but when we wanted to see how her work had influenced other writers we looked closer to home.

Hope Wabuke
I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was a second grader at Highland Oaks Elementary School in Arcadia, California. I was the only black student in my school, and I had just been pushed off the swings after being called a “nigger” by a white girl who was my classmate. I began to spend my lunch and recess periods in the library, where no one went. I thought I would be free from violence there. 

I don’t know what exactly led me to pick out I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—maybe it was the contrast between the orange cover and the purple block letters. Maybe, since I have always played music, it was the beautiful imagery of the title. Maybe it was her name “Maya,” since we had just finished studying the Mayans and the Aztecs in social studies. Maybe it was an act of God. What I do know is that Maya Angelou changed my life.

Maya Angelou wrote about my experience in the world. I had never read that before. All the books we had read in school were about white men and written by white men. But Maya Angelou wrote about being a poor, black girl—the misfit, the outcast. She wrote about being attacked. She wrote about living in fear, especially at school and walking to and from school. She wrote about racial violence from whites and sexual violence from men. She wrote about transcending all that and thriving.

Maya Angelou was revelatory. She was comfort. She was strength. She gave me pride, for the first time in my life, in being a woman—and in being a woman of African descent. She led me to Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin and Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison and to my own career as a writer. Because, as Maya Angelou showed me, a black girl could be a writer. And that black girl could write her own authentic experience in her own voice.

Maya Angelou gave me the courage to exist in a world where, if you are a woman or a person of color, you are still met with a great deal of violence simply for being, let alone trying to be something.

Thank you Maya Angelou for your words, your being. You have given me—you have given all of us little black girls—so much. You are deeply missed.

–Hope Wabuke is a blogger for Ms. and has contributed to the Daily Beast, Salon, Gawker, the Feminist Wire, All in the Skin, and Kalyani among others. She was a fellow at the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) and serves as the director of media and communications for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction.

Elise Thompson
Maya Angelou was a warrior with a poet’s soul. She fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement, danced, sang, traveled the world, and served her country as Poet Laureate. Through it all, she never stopped writing. A true writer can’t stop. I have read all of her books; it has been a privilege to be invited along on her many adventures from walks down dusty roads to voodoo adventures in Haiti.

I learned many lessons along the way, but as a writer, the one thing that I learned from Angelou’s books is to trust your audience. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable. Do not hide your mistakes, instead learn from them and move on. Trust that your readers will stay with you and love you even as you struggle.

–Elise Thompson is the editor of the Los Angeles Beat.

Jessica Ceballos
“There is no greater agony, than bearing an untold story inside you.”

I was 9 years old, so really all I could remember was her voice; that’s what I absorbed at the time. That voice. I love the deep, graceful tone of a woman who knows exactly where she stands. At that age we didn’t yet know that those songs she sang, songs that inspired us to look past what was in front of us, came from a place that many of us knew too well and forced ourselves to run from.

And I ran.

Mistakenly taken from a safe home and placed in the strange world of foster care at 7 years old, I began to question everything from identity to self-worth. It became easy to lose myself in music, poetry, and dreams. That’s when I found “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”

I knew that woman. I had heard her voice on Reading Rainbow, had seen her interviewed by Charlie Rose. I knew her in a way that I didn’t know Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich or Anne Sexton.

Maya Angelou told our story. And she continued the story, inspiring caged birds to sing. For years I put her words away, wrote them off as being confessional. But at 36 years old, I need the voice of a Maya Angelou in my life more than ever.

“Everything has rhythm, everything dances,” Angelou once said. “For a long time, I would think of… my whole body, as an ear, and that I could just go into a room and I could just absorb sound. I never did find a voice I didn’t find wonderful and beautiful.”

About a year ago I secretly returned to her words for encouragement because, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’ve finally realized that it’s not about the writing, it’s about the story, and letting that story free so that we can live.

Though Maya Angelou was more than a poet, she taught me that poetry is a necessary and inescapable journey.

And a peaceful forever is a fair destination for a divine savior who carried us, with her words, through this place we call Earth.

Jessica Ceballos is a poet, community advocate, traveler, and cultural wanderer. Her work has appeared in Centre Review, Variant, Arc, La Boga, Hinchas de Poesia, Haight Ashbury Journal, EAP Journal #1, The RPB – LA Anthology, and RA among others. A third generation Southern Californian, she was recently elected to the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council as a director-at-large. A longer version of this piece was originally published in Cultural Weekly.

LeConté J. Dill
I discovered Maya in South Central L.A. In the early ’90s. In a dark and cramped coat closet where my mom stashed books that didn’t fit on the bookshelf. Books from her 1970s and 1980s self. Mom said that she used to hide in that closet when she was younger. Her 1960s self. Hide from Nana and Papa fighting. Hide from middle child syndrome. Hide from post-riots L.A. Hide from pre-pubescence.

When I took to my own hiding, in my room, in my homework, in my to-do lists, in my diaries, in bookstores, in baggy jeans hiding skipped meals, Mom dug in that closet and retrieved Angelou, sitting next to Shange and Bambara and Walker and Morrison. Shakespeare, Emerson, and Tolstoy are great, for sure, and the private prep school that I attended championed them, but Mom was crafting me another canon. Another way to look at the world, with my own beautiful Black girl eyes. Another way to speak back to the world, with my own beautiful Black girl tongue. Mom gifted me her copies of Maya’s first two poetry collections Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie and Oh Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit Me Well

And with these gifts, I was granted the permission to mix music with my written word, my utterances, my thoughts, my prayers. I was granted the permission to be ironic and funny in my writing and in my young life. I was granted the permission to write protest poems and to know that love poems might indeed be the same poems. I was granted the permission to stretch boundaries, test limits, and color outside of the lines. In fact, for an 11th grade English assignment, we were to select a poem out of a “Best of” American poetry anthology, memorize the poem, analyze the poem, complete a research paper related to our analysis, and recite the poem in class. The anthology featured NO writers of color, but Mom gave me a canon, and Maya granted me permission, and so I leaned on her. I selected “Song for the Old Ones” for the assignment, even though it wasn’t in the anthology. With this poem, Maya gifted us all history, narrative, irony, reverence, and end rhyme. And with my enchantment with this poem, I began making statements as a reader, a writer, and a student. Now, as a writer, professor, and lifelong learner myself, I am implored by Maya’s legacy to always “tell the human truth” in my writing, my teaching, and my research.

–LeConté J. Dill has roots in South Central Los Angeles and is currently budding blossoms in New York City. She is a public health professor and a poet. She holds degrees from Spelman College, UCLA, and UC Berkeley and has participated in creative writing workshops with the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) and Cave Canem.

Meeting Maya by Marie-Françoise Theodore
I don’t remember when I first encountered Dr. Maya Angelou’s writing. Mainly that’s because, like learning how to read, I can’t remember a time of ever not knowing it. I must have been very young when I first read her memoir. Her words would become as close as my breath while I practically devoured I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I don’t think I could intellectually fathom what she was expressing, but I could feel it in the spaces on my spine—the childhood sexual assault and the journey back to wholeness. I couldn’t believe anyone, especially a woman, had the audacity to write about those experiences. She certainly wasn’t like any of the women I knew in my Haitian or African American foster family where keeping up appearances and maintaining secrecy was considered a virtue, even as it led to neurosis and mental breakdowns. They would never write the truth of their lives in a book and publish it for all the world to see.

The seed was planted and the cat spilled out of the bag. Maya Angelou gave me a voice when I had none and opened my eyes to what was possible in the arc of a life, not just a moment in time. I was in awe.

When Dr. Angelou came to speak in London while I was living there in the ‘90s, newly married and homesick, I decided to go see her. Usually I avoided that sort of thing; it can be disappointing to meet your heroes up close. And her work had helped save my life; to expect more felt greedy.

After the  lecture, Ms Angelou signed books and smiled at those who stood in line to greet her. I didn’t have a book for her to sign. Standing not too far away I waited to speak with her. I wanted to thank her for all she had done. As she was leaving I approached her; she turned and smiled. She placed her hand on mine and looking me straight in the eye, waited patiently as I let out a stream of sounds about how much I loved her work. She must have been tired after the lecture, signing and dealing with hordes of people clamoring for her attention. Nonetheless, she gave me her full attention. Then she thanked me. We stood in silence for a moment. She was so gracious and I felt so grateful. One of her staff touched her arm and Maya squeezed my hand and left.

From that second on I viscerally understood the importance of writing and the way that anything truthfully expressed could impact someone’s life. Truth is always recognized. I lived on that moment for a long time. Anytime I succumb to doubts about writing my own story, I look back to that moment and allow the seed that Dr. Angelou planted in me so long ago to bloom. And I continue writing.

–Marie-Françoise Theodore is a Los Angeles-based writer, performer, and filmmaker.  She has performed at leading regional theaters both in the United States and abroad and is currently a fellow at Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA).