Sometimes gifted writers, like Maya Angelou, feel like a friend because they invite you into their heart and mind with such a generosity of spirit. It’s no wonder that millions around the world are grieving her death. Though we didn’t ‘know’ her, we came into her world through the 31 books, essays, plays and poetry that she so eloquently wrote. I loved introducing her writings with college students.
In the cacophony of voices of praise for Angelou’s evocative writings and dramatic readings, I can imagine she might shout out, “WAIT, WAIT, WAIT! Please remember that a few very important people came into my life during pivotal moments. Without their kindness and wisdom, I might never have found my voice. Literally!”
Because for almost five long years, little Marguerite Johnson (now famous as Maya Angelou), was mute.
A Childhood Experience
As an eight-years old, while living in St. Louis, her mother’s boyfriend raped her and then was murdered. After this life-changing trauma, she became unwilling to talk, except to her brother Bailey.
Her mother then sent Marguerite and Bailey back to live again with their grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. A hard-working entrepreneur, her grandmother owned the General Store in this deeply segregated Southern town.
After years of staying silent, she experienced a heart-healing friendship with Mrs. Bertha Flowers, an aristocratic beautiful African American woman who often visited the General Store.
“She handed me my first life-line,” recalls Maya in her groundbreaking memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
One summer afternoon, to her surprise, Mrs. Flowers invited Maya to come to her home where she served her cold fresh lemonade and homemade sugar cookies.
But more important, she talked with her about the beauty of the human voice. “I hear you’re doing very good school work, Marguerite, but that it’s all written. The teachers report they have trouble getting you to talk in class,” said Mrs. Flowers, who loved literature.
“Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
The Power of the Human Voice
Then Mrs. Flowers brought out A Tale of Two Cities and opened the page and read aloud the opening, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
“I heard poetry for the first time in my life,” recalls Maya, mesmerized by the sounds. Mrs. Flowers gave her a book of poems and asked her to memorize one for her. “Next time you pay a visit, I want you to recite.” She ran home that day with books in hand and her heart over-flowing. “I was liked and what a difference it made. She had made cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book.”
This began a friendship that Maya knows changed her life as Mrs. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allen Poe.
Responding to such kindness, Maya began to speak again.
I love her tribute to Mrs. Flowers because Maya reminds us that everyday acts of creating kindness can offer healing balm. What our world would have lost if Mrs. Flowers failed to act on her concern for a child silenced by pain.
As families who are living with grief, her story reminds me to never underestimate the heart-healing power of kindness, both to give and receive from one another. As Maya says so eloquently, it may even be a ‘life-line.’