Because we have forgotten our ancestors our children no longer give us honor.
Because we have lost the path our ancestors cleared, kneeling in perilous undergrowth, our children cannot find their way.
Because we have banished the God of our ancestors, our children can not pray….Dr. Maya Angelou, The Black Family Pledge.
How do you poetically memorialize a great poet? You can’t, especially when her life was itself, a form of poetry. Mother, daughter, granddaughter, actress, dancer, writer, activist, friend, teacher, mentor, avid cook and cultural luminary, Maya Angelou is gone, at age 86. A survivor of child abuse, life on the streets, Jim Crow segregation and the strife of history and circumstance that took so many of her friends—Malcolm, Martin, James Baldwin& others; Maya Angelou was bigger than her hometown of Stamps, Arkansas could hold. She was our Miriam; our discoverer of oases and maker of wells, a songstress whose poetry cataloged a spirit of change borne in an ancient tradition.
Maya Angelou was an incredible inspiration to many. She challenged us to enter the interior world of a human being, who happened to be African American, who happened to be her—from her childhood through her sunset years. Dr. Angelou was a “Phenomenal Woman,” who found her way into millions of lives through her autobiographical writing, poetry, performances and her dedication to truth. Her delivery of her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” in 1993, changed my life. It was one of many encounters with “Sister” Angelou’s work that reframed my mental universe.
Sometimes it is better to never meet your heroes. They remain as holy to you as the first time you heard their voice or met them on paper. No stories of akwardness, miscommunication or missed opportunities to say or hear something lifechanging. No dreams of perfect moments dashed. At first I was sad I never had the chance to meet Dr. Angelou; now I know that to the degree that I’ve met her everyday in my work, she has fulfilled her notion that people can forget your words or deeds, but they cannot forget how you made them feel.
Consider the story of tea cakes in her groundbreaking autobiographical work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Her mature, ladylike behavior is rewarded by Mrs. Flowers with lemonade and the quintessential Southern treat, the tea cake. When she returns home she informs her brother Bailey that “By the way,” tea cakes had been sent for him as, well. She is promptly whipped. Her grandmother is incensed and breaks off a switch from a peach tree and whips all three children, praying before she delivered the blows.
Black people’s journey with food has never been just about feeding a need or taking a step back to admire the aesthetics. Our journey with food has always been fraught with layers of meaning from our identity. In this case, Black Southern fundamentalism causes “Rittie” to lose her tea cake. “By the way,” is like taking G-d ‘ s name in vain, “the way” being a reference to the presence of (Jesus.) What’s spectacular about her delivery of the story is that you don’t know what she “did wrong” until the story is over! You feel like she felt as a little girl.
These are the things we have to know to tell the food stories of our ancestors. I have often been accused of being stuck in the past…such an accusation is rarely lobbed at my white peers who reenact the Civil or Revolutionary wars. Besides, nothing could be further from the truth.
See those words above? My Dad gave me those words as a teenager. I wanted to understand those Ancestors. I wanted to know what we had so callously left behind, who we had forgotten, and the G-d they knew that helped them survive such a human disaster. I knew that if I followed Dr. Angelou’s trail I would find my way back to that sacred secret and maybe, just maybe bring some honor back to the dishonored. Food was my gateway.
I come from the days when we had to read, remember and recite poems. So my favorite at the time was “Still I Rise.” In that seminal poem are my marching orders: “Bringing the gifts that my Ancestors gave/I am the dream and the hope of the slave./I rise.” I don’t do this work to be angry, resentful, bitter or as an apology for or celebration of our past oppression. I do it because these sacred words mean the future will keep coming, but our Ancestors’ truths will endure. We are their best fantasy and greatest and only hope. How we remember them, how we succeed, how we survive is permanently linked to them and them to us. Thank you Maya Angelou for giving me solid ground on which to base my work.
It makes me proud to know that both Dr. Angelou and I share maternal DNA with the Mende people of Sierra Leone. Distant distant cousins! We are the people who turned the Amistad around, the people who produced actors, artists, and a preacher from Georgia, Dr. Angelou knew very well, who had a dream that revolutionized the world. From the rice fields to the hills of beautiful Winston Salem, may our common ancestors send her off to Paradise and greet her for a job well done.
We missed you, sweetly, before you were ever gone. Now that you are, we know that there is no way your wisdom will be replaced, but we hope children of all colors will read your work and stand tall and remember that our setbacks, failures and problems do not define us. In spite of them, our songs, our poems, our dreams, good deeds and feeling for the good are our eternal memory.
I love you, we loved you, we will always love you, Maya Angelou.