by Monte Sahlin
By Dr. Keith A. Burton, May 31, 2014
When she spoke, silence overpowered the atmosphere. When she spoke, her spellbound audiences voluntarily surrendered to her hypnotically cadenced and carefully crafted words. When she spoke, sympathizers and critics alike could not help but marvel at her ability to be heard. When she spoke, her probing and penetrating prose proposed powerful potions for improving pressing problems. When she spoke, her unique experience shaped her calm and collected countenance that had countered countless calamities. But she had not always spoken so effectively.
Sticks and Stones
Sexually abused in her childhood, the young girl who would later become Dr. Maya Angelou made a baffling decision. Confused by the power of her confession that led to the scandalous one-day imprisonment of her perpetrator, this innocent victim carried around a culprit’s guilt so heavy that it immobilized her tongue. For five years, she refused to speak, fearing that her speech possessed prophetic power. Unconvinced by the popular psychological ditty, she knew that sticks and stones were no match against words.
After her quinquennium of quietness, Dr. Angelou chose to put sound to her words. This commenced the first phase of a curious quest to find her real voice. Heretofore, her voice had been contaminated by family dysfunction and uncertainty. Now, as she navigated the hormonal maze of adolescent curiosity, she would let her body speak for her. Indeed, her body spoke life as she added a male child to the world’s population when only seventeen. It also spoke lust as she made a conscious choice to prostitute her flesh—almost as if preemptively extracting retroactive compensation from the pervert whose demented spirit possessed the sex-craved clones that voluntarily paid for what he had stolen by force.
Fortunately, the cacophonous noise embedded in her destructive choices left her unsatisfied. Clarity of voice could not be attained when muffled by actions shaped by yesterday’s ghosts. Looking to the future, the one who was once mute sought to express herself through the legal entertainment industry. Indeed, it was during this era that Marguerite Annie Johnson became Maya Angelou. With her new name came a restored persona and fascination for Latin languages. Nonetheless, even with her impressive multilingualism, the Saint Louis native had still not fully found her voice.
The Caged Bird’s Song
As fate moved her from acting to action, Dr. Angelou’s search brought her to the African continent where she worked for news media in Cairo, Egypt, and Accra, Ghana. This philosophical daughter of Garvey had found an ancestral home to nurture her voice in preparation for a greater task. Notwithstanding, Nkrumah’s newly independent nation may have offered sanctuary for this Afro-American wayfarer, but it was also a constant reminder of Jim Crow’s chains that still shackled the American apartheid. Hence, El Hajj Malik El Shabbaz (bka Malcolm X) did not have to blow his pipe too hard to lure her back to American soil where she was a founding member of the Organization for Afro-American Unity.
Although one of millions of birds trapped in the racist American cage, Maya Angelou joined in the melodious song of freedom with the multi part choir that formed the Civil Rights movement. The significance of her burgeoning voice is indicated by the fact that both Malcolm and Martin included her in their inner circles of influence. It was from this vantage point that she capitalized on the power of the pen. Transferring thought to paper ensured that her voice could be heard even if her mouth were once again muted—whether voluntarily or involuntarily.
Indeed, it is Dr. Angelou’s written words that have magnified her voice to untold millions around the globe. Because of the voices that have shaped them, some who have heard her voice express repulsion. The truth is, her words can be provocative, evocative, erotic and even irreverent. However, take the time to peel away the layers of material that her tarnished life has lent to her. Make a decision to intently listen to America’s poet laureate, and you will hear the voice of one who truly yearned for a better society. Hers may not have fully reflected my personal understanding of God’s ideal society, but few can deny that she spoke calming words in an era where so many spew venom of hate. Few can deny that when she spoke, her voice was heard.
God Loves Me
Having left a strong literary legacy after her recent transition into slumber, I wonder for which voice Maya Angelou would like to be remembered? Undoubtedly, psychologists will fixate on the way in which the pains of yesteryear shaped the narrative of this caged bird. Civil Rights activists will conjure her silent zeal as they agitate for change in society. Literary scholars will analyze and critique her tantalizing metaphors and ability to pack multiple layers of meaning in one line of poetry. Theologians will debate the moral impact of her writings and the “orthodoxy” of the Unity faith that shaped her spiritual maturation.
If she were to address us from the grave, I would like to believe that she would point us to the time when she truly found her Voice. As she shared recently with her protégé, Oprah Winfrey, it was during her twenties that she encountered the most amazing truth of God’s love for her—even in her brokenness. It was in recognition of God’s love for her that she sought to spread his love through the channel of her broken vessel. Without even attempting to constrain her emotions, the one who once refused to speak boldly declared to the world, “That’s why I am who I am, because God loves me and I am amazed at it!”
Another influential female American writer was also amazed by God’s love. In the first sentence of her best selling devotional, Steps to Christ, Ellen G. White writes, “Nature and revelation alike testify of God’s love.” Indeed it was His Voice of love that beckoned Maya Angelou and continues to invite billions of others to find their authentic voice in Him. I pray that my church will not only find that Voice, but will allow Him to so fill us with His presence that “all people will know that we are His disciples because of the love we not only have for each other—but share with others.” (John 13:35)
As we reflect on these words while we are expectantly perched “on the pulse of [God’s] morning,” let us never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Dr. Keith Augustus Burton directs the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University.