Remembering Maya Angelou who Taught Me the Life-Taking and Life-Giving Power of Words

Feminist Rag Award NEW_Maya Angelou

I caught an Oprah’s Master Class episode the other night which featured a conversation with Maya Angelou, may she have died without suffering and may she live on in peace and love in some other dimension.  She described how at age 6 or 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and didn’t tell anyone except for her brother or cousin of similar age. He then told an adult, and shortly after that, the man who raped Maya was put in jail and was either beaten to death or killed himself. Right after that, Maya went mute, because in her 6 or 7 year old logic, she came to understand that her words can kill people because she said out loud the name of her rapist, and the chain of events that followed ultimately resulted in his death.

Kids can teach us so much when we take the time and Respect to understand them.

Maya’s mother didn’t know what to do with her newly mute daughter, so she eventually sent her away to live with her grandmother, which Maya said was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. With some support from her grandma and a family friend, she began to read and write. And eventually she began to speak again. During the years of being mute, Maya discovered the world of the written word and clearly became a master of it.

Watching Maya speak, it struck me how much innocence she had and though she was in her 80’s, I could also see the little girl in her. I think it’s such a beautiful thing to keep that part of us alive. It can never die anyway, we can just get really good at building walls and fences to protect it after its been hurt one too many times. It doesn’t take much to break an innocent heart, for it is so fragile (but at the same time, I am daily astounded at how equally resilient the human spirit is). The colonist patriarchal culture isn’t exactly brimming over with respect, gentleness and compassion FOR our inner children to be out. Even so, I think we let ourselves down when we don’t honor our inner, innocent child and her/his needs, wants and dreams.

Words are so very powerful. They can deliver pain and suffering and deflate the lifeforce out of people, and they can also deliver love and gentleness and build UP the lifeforce.

Before my sister was born when I was 8, I was a sad and lonely kid living in a home of darkness. I only knew it was dark because the one friend I had, when I would go to her house, felt so light. Maya said:

You must be careful about the words you use, or the words you allow to be used in your house. Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, and your upholstery and your clothes, and finally, into you.

When I think of my childhood home, the words that seeped into our walls, furniture, clothing, and ourselves were words attached to un-loving values.  Harsh, cold, dark values, such as judgment, comparison, expectations, male supremacy, hierarchical thinking, and general ignorance (the adults not knowing how to do much more than provide us with our basic needs, not knowing how to communicate, resolve conflict, and generally raise us girls to be our full and true shining selves).

Words have values attached to them, and values are what shape, make (or destroy) Life. This is why I am so drawn to indigenous worldviews and values, because they are so radically different from colonist ones, and make such a difference to the human heart and spirit. In this post I illustrated just how different indigenous cultural values are from colonist ones, and it is an hourly, daily and lifelong process for me to decolonize and undo the colonized values I was born and indoctrinated into, and replace them with more healthy, loving ones.  Personal Responsibility is a real and important and powerful thing, we all have it, and as hard as it may sometimes be, it’s our duty, as human beings, to take responsibility for ourselves, our lives, and all the things we DO have power in.

I’ve been the kind of person who thinks out loud, which sometimes has me meandering and finding the long, windy way to Truth.  I know and so appreciate people who are precise with their words, who think a lot before speaking, and speak and write with clarity and coherence.  This is something I would like to do more of, and Maya inspires and reminds me of just how important and impactful our words are.

So in closing, I leave you and me with these insightful words from Maya Angelou:

Try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up. It’s yours. This is your life. This is your world. You make your own choices. You can decide life isn’t worth living. That would be the worst thing you could do. How do you know? So fall. Try it. See. So pick it up. Pick up the battle and make it a better world. Just where you are. Yes. And it can be better and it must be better, but it is up to us.

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