Mourning Maya, phenomenally
American author and poet Maya Angelou passed away when she was 86. As an admirer the sensible thing for me to have done was mentally prepare myself for her imminent death, especially because she had lived a life truly worth writing about. She'd seen a number of things, experienced many emotions, and her politics were relatable enough to be universally relevant. And yet, the news of her death yesterday left me shocked and saddened. Shocked because death, although inevitable, is always disarming. And rather than be perpetually paranoid, we relegate its permanence to the back of our minds and go about our days with the numbing illusion that we have time. Suddenly, memories of her work - from the books, to the quotes, to the poetry - all came back, in rapid succession. I was sad because I remembered how she had made me feel.
I was in grade 11 when I first engaged with Maya's work. My best friend lent me a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and I remember giggling myself silly in the train while reading a scene about a character's rigid reluctance to get the pastor to 'Preach it!'. I would read on, in total admiration of Maya's life, and her propensity to take stock, whatever her current situation, and not be afraid to pack her bags and pursue happiness wherever she felt it would be found.
Maya, a sensitively imaginative writer who knew the limits of language and the possibilities of silence, made the reader understand and empathise with the difficultly of being a little black girl caught up in a harsh and unkind world. I appreciated how she loved her brother Bailey, and how his love and affirmation of her allowed her to grow into a person that would gleefully welcome all the gifts that life had to give. In speaking about her brother in the book, she says: "Of all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has, the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshakable need for an unshakable God. My little Black brother Bailey was my Kingdom Come." To this day, the level of love in this quote still makes my heart smile.
The world, and specifically black girls and women, have lost one of their grandmothers. A woman who made us understand that we are special and kind and important and that our bodies, as big, small, plump and complex as they are, are phenomenal. In a world where black life is tough and being a black woman is taxing, where it's important for us to learn our lessons and to learn them quickly, it is the Maya Angelous of the world who taught us to be doubly armed and doubly prepared. Maya shouted "black child, it's possible" long before lovely Lupita Nyong'o came along and reminded us that our dreams are valid.
The sense of sadness I feel is familiar. It's similar to the emotional desolation that I felt when Whitney Houston and Lebo Mathosa and more recently, Gabriel García Márquez, died. I never met these people and I probably never would have, but they all touched me in some way, whether it was to come into my dark mind and light a fuse that's been burning ever since, or tug at my heart strings and make me contemplate life on a frigid Friday night. And it's the issues they argued for, the questions they questioned, that makes me remember it all.
As my peers and I gather in collective grief to reflect on Maya and who she was to us, as we remember just how amazing this woman was, we are reminded of how she inspired us to show up for life, to be better and do better, and to take no prisoners in our quest to be self-definitive, self-actualisers and quintessential bad asses.
RIP Mama Maya.
Nomonde Ndwalaza is a content producer at Talk Radio 702.