The Rebel Brand and Maya Angelou
How do I rise up?
American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist
April 4, 1928 - May 28, 2014
- Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson) was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist
- She stopped speaking completely for five years after being raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was just eight years old
- Her early life was the focus of her 1969 memoir, / Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, making literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman
- Received several honors including two NAACP Image Awards in Outstanding Literary Work for Nonfiction in 2005 and 2009
- Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011
Behind the Question
Maya Angelou is known for the words she spoke. Her words inspired stories that led to movements and helped people feel worthy, seen, and loved. She's published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and an abundance of poetry. And, for five years, she never spoke a single word.
Maya experienced something no person should have to, a violent rape at the age of eight years old. Reluctantly, she ended up telling her brother, leading to other family members finding out, and, ultimately, the rapist was found dead a day after being released from prison. Maya literally stopped speaking for five years because she thought her words had killed a man. Despite living in silence, Maya found the silver lining to a horrific experience. She read nonstop. She read everything. She memorized poetry. She consumed every book in the black school library and anything she could get her hands on from the white school library. "When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say and many ways in which to say what I had to say."-Maya Angelou
It was Mrs. Bertha Flowers, described by Maya as the aristocrat of Black Stamps, who ended her silence. In `I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, Maya says "She was one of the few gentle women I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be." It was Mrs. Flowers who would read poetry to Maya and asked her to consume all the literature in the library, but it was also she who said, "You'll never love poetry until you feel it come out of your mouth." This bothered Maya because although she adored poetry and respected Mrs. Flowers, she still did not want to speak. Mrs. Flowers was relentless, chasing and harassing Maya until finally, after five years' of silence; Maya went under her house and recited a poem aloud, coming to the realization," had left my voice, my voice hadn't left me: At that moment, she rose from her trauma-_and never stopped rising.
You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I'll rise.-excerpt from Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
Irrespective of what we want to rise up from, we have to make the decision on our own. People, circumstances, and experiences can all help, but ultimately, as Maya chose to break her silence by reciting a poem, we have to take that first step as well. We all deserve to rise up, flourish, and not be silenced. Where do I find the courage to rise up? We could be choosing to rise up in many situations, but there is one thing required for them all--courage. Whether that be the courage to take the first step in prioritizing our health or be the courage to set foot on stage to speak in front of an audience, courage is the unlock.
Maya used a practical mental hack to tap into courage at a moment's notice:
"One of the things I do when I step up on a stage, when I stand up to translate, when I go to teach my classes, when I go to direct a movie, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me--Black, White, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American, gay, straight, everybody. I say, 'Come with me. I'm going on the stage, come with me, I need you now.' You see? So I don't ever feel I have no help. Maya Angelou
We all have those people who have been kind to us, but we rarely think about who they are. Let's do that now. List those people in your life who have been kind, respectful, and inspirational. List those who provide the courage needed to rise up. "in book one of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, he does this very thing. He lists and describes all the people in his life who have expanded his mind, touched his heart, and guided him through experiences. For some, he wrote a few paragraphs; and for others, such as his adoptive father Roman emperor Antonius Pius, he wrote several pages. This exercise also doubles as an excellent gratitude practice for the people who mean the most to you. Do not spare any detail. The more you describe, the easier it will be to recall the people and characteristics you admire when you need them most.
We can also leverage the same people, or others depending on the situation, to help us work through challenging conditions. Maya would consider what her grandmother's actions and words would be, "Now what would grandma do? What would she say?" Sometimes a subtle shift in perspective is all that is required to unlock the answers we seek. "If you don't like a situation you try to change it. Do whatever you can to change it. And if everything you do falls flat, and you can't change it, then change the way you think about it." -Maya Angelou
How do I help others rise up?
There is no doubt Maya Angelou found the courage she needed to rise up. She rose up into her mid-eighties, leaving behind a legacy that still inspires us today. It is no accident that Maya serves as a mentor and role model years after her passing. She was intentional in being there for others. "I've had so many rainbows in my louds...prepare yourself so that you can be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud." -Maya Angelou
How would you like people to speak and think of you when you are not in the room? What characteristics make you, you? Can you be that rainbow in somebody else's cloud? All it takes is a decision to show up each day as the person you want to be remembered for. Write down how you want to show up for others, or stick a note somewhere that will serve as your daily reminder. During Maya's funeral, Oprah Winfrey shared, "Her great gift to us is that she made us feel heard and seen and loved and worthy. You alone are enough, she taught me." Let us never forget the people who give us courage, help us through life, pick us up when we are down, and celebrate when we are up. We are or can be that person for others.