Connie Schultz: In Maya Angelou’s care, we were never alone
By Connie Schultz
How to do this.
How to explain how a white girl in small-town America found a kindred spirit in a black woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South.
Start here, perhaps.
Maya Angelou was 3 years old when she and her beloved brother, Bailey, were shipped down to the segregated South to live with their paternal grandmother. They called her Momma because that’s who she was in word and deed.
Momma ran a general store that was the pulsing heart of the black community. One summer morning, when Angelou was about 10, her grandmother tied on her starched white apron and walked out on the front porch to watch her rake the dirt smooth of debris.
They stood together admiring the child’s handiwork until “a troop of the powhitetrash kids” tumbled down the hill toward them.
Momma began to sing a hymn, low and deep, pausing only to order Angelou to go inside. The girl hovered behind the screen door and watched in horror as the white kids mocked her grandmother, who never stopped singing.
“The dirt of the girls’ cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms, and faces to make them all of a piece,” Angelou wrote in her 1969 memoirs, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” “Their greasy uncolored hair hung down, uncombed, with a grim finality. I knelt to see them better, to remember them for all time. The tears that had slipped down my dress left unsurprising dark spots, and made the front yard blurry and even more unreal. The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.”
Angelou was in her early 40s when she wrote “Caged Bird,” which covered the first 17 years of her life. I was 17 when I first read it, thanks to a woman we all called Aunt Louise. She ran the general store down the street and always stocked several racks of paperbacks in the back.
An unmarried woman in middle age, she had known her undue share of judgment. She was my first adult confidante and let me read her books free if I stayed in the store. One afternoon, she pulled out Angelou’s book and pointed to that passage about her grandmother and those hateful white kids.
I don’t recall precisely what Aunt Louise said to me, but it had to do with an exchange she knew I’d witnessed between my father and his supervisor at the power plant. I’d brought a plate of food for Dad during one of his overtime shifts. He was covered in black, wearing clothes I did not recognize, and he’d barely said hello before a voice in the dark barked his last name and ordered him back to work.
My father — my big, scary father — shrugged his shoulders with a sheepish grin I’d never seen before and headed back into the darkness. It was my first glimpse into the “why” behind his simmering rage.
Aunt Louise knew it had changed me to see him treated that way. She thought Maya Angelou might help me find the words to explain it, if only to myself.
Even at 17, it was not lost on me that Angelou could understand the indignities suffered by a white man whose heart would be forever closed to the likes of her. To me, that was her greatest gift as a writer. She was a universal healer. In her care, we were never alone.
After news broke Wednesday that she had died at age 86, social media erupted with favorite Maya Angelou quotations. There are so many, posted by as diverse a population as inherits the earth.
Again, that gift. Countless people insisting: She speaks for me.
In 2006, Angelou walked to the lectern at Coretta Scott King’s funeral and, to the uproarious delight of the crowd, began her eulogy by breaking into song:
I open my mouth to the Lord.
And I won’t turn back, no.
I will go.
I shall go.
I’ll see what the end is gonna be.
I draw comfort knowing that I am not alone in listening, listening hard, for Maya Angelou’s whisper of what she got to see.