Maya, Malcolm X and Me. by Leza Lowitz
On Wednesday, May 28th, Maya Angelou died at the age of 86. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, she’d taken the hurt, pain, and fear of her early life and transformed herself into Maya, this larger-than-life (yet exceedingly human) presence who was so many things to so many people–writer, essayist, playwright, singer, dancer, actress, composer, professor and director. Inspiration.
To me, she was an early saviour. Maya Angelou touched my life the way she touched thousands of others. In 1970, I was a fourth grader at Malcolm X Elementary in Berkeley, California when she came to visit our school. She’d published her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and every kid at my school had read it.
It’s a coming-of-age story that follows Marguerite from 3 to 13, tackling issues like racism, trauma, and abandonment in unflinchingly honest and beautiful language.
Her gift didn’t come easily. At the age of eight, Maya was raped. After telling her family, her attacker was beaten to death. Maya stopped speaking for years, turning instead to reading and writing poetry. A teacher introduced her to Shakespeare, whose “The Rape of Lucrece” helped her have the courage to speak again. She studied dance and drama, but dropped out of high school at 14. At 17, around the time she had a son, and went back to complete her degree. A young, single mother, she worked as a stripper to support her family. Over time, she began to sing and dance again, touring in a production of Porgy and Bess and meeting people like Billie Holliday. She renamed herself Maya Angelou. Eventually, she became a poet. Her bestselling memoirs of growing up black and female made her a beloved American storyteller, with her “seemingly boundless optimism in the face of hardship (Bloomberg).”
But back then, in 1970, before she’d read her poetry at Clinton’s inaguration and became a national treasure, she spoke of how the power of her words had frightened her as a child–she’d believed they had the power to take life. Well, they did. Her rapist was killed, presumably by angry family members. She was a truth-teller. And when you’ve been through the fire, your words, your truth, have a power that is unsilenceable.
And what power that woman’s words had to this little awestruck white girl sitting on the floor at Malcolm X School auditorium in Berkeley, 1970.
My life could not have been more different than hers. At eight years old, I was scrawny, Jewish, with self-cut bangs and a wandering eye that required an eye patch (No, I did not believe the Moshe Dayan look was cool). But mainly, I was a girl who often got the shit beaten out of me. This I later came to understand was considered “payback” for all the horrors whites had inflicted on blacks for centuries. I know it made me stronger. I know it made me empathise with the suffering of others. But back then, I only knew that it sucked being me.
She had every reason to be bitter and hardened. But she wasn’t. When she was asked why she never became embittered, she said that she had “always felt loved.” When she came to us at Malcolm X, I knew there had to be a way to live together. She modelled how to turn the straw of your life into gold. She showed us to lift others up with you when you flew.
Outside our little world, the Vietnam War was raging, and the streets of Berkeley were on fire with protests. Our parents, ever idealistic, wanted us to grow up together in unity–white, black, asian, native. And we did, eventually, though not at first in the ways in which they had hoped. We fought each other. We resisted this voluntary “integration.” With much violence around us, it was easy to be pulled down. But our principal wanted us to rise up, so he invited people to look up to. And they came–people like James Baldwin and Maya, with the colors of the earth–reds, browns, sunsets–radiating from her geometric patterned dress. Tall and regal, her thick booming voice sailed out over her broad-brimmed hat and over the auditorium like a magic scarf, entrancing us with its power.
I don’t even remember what she said. I just remember the way her voice hit the walls of my heart and cracked them right open. I fell in love with Maya Angelou. I fell in love with poetry. And I felt the true ferocious undeniable power of words.
Because when Maya came to my elementary school and spoke to me, she was doing just that–Speaking Directly To Me. Speaking to that small voice in myself that others would try to silence, that voice which later in life I would also deny myself. That voice in Maya which she had nurtured and watered until it became so powerful and life-affirming that it could only be let out to sing. In my own small way, I wanted to do the same. But back then, my own words were increasingly angry, rebellious, and difficult to subdue. While my parents marriage fell apart, I bore the brunt of that combustion. My mouth was washed out with soap, I was beaten with a belt and grounded for weeks on end. To be sure, these were minor injustices compared to what many women in our world endure, but they burned nonetheless. And yet, on some level, they made me realise that my words must have some kind of power. If not, why would they be attempted to be forced back into silence?
In the end, the words would not be stopped. In my room, enveloped in the silence, I wrote and wrote and wrote in my journal. Not for anyone to see, but for me. To uncage the words. To free my own heart. Because in my own small way, I knew it could be done. Maya had shown us that. I will always remember that tall, majestic woman who graced us with her presence, who entranced with her words. I will always be grateful to that angel for coming down to earth and sharing her wisdom, power and grace.
I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. It that auditorium, listening to her words, we were one.
Leza Lowitz is a yoga teacher and writer based in Tokyo. She is the author of the #1 amazon best-seller Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By and 17 other books, including Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, a young adult novel about an eco-warrior freedom fighter on a quest to save her tribal lands, which received the APALA Award in Young Adult Literature. Lowitz has contributed to The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Shambhala Sun, Harper’s, Yoga Journal, and Best Buddhist Writing.
When she is not writing, she runs Sun and Moon Yoga in Tokyo, which she founded in 2003. Here Comes the Sun, her memoir of yoga, adoption and mid-life motherhood, is forthcoming in 2015 from Stone Bridge Press. Visit her at www.lezalowitz.com
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and she and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, London, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Tucson. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.