Because she spoke

Memoirist, poet, and civil rights leader Maya Angelou [Photo Clinton Library – William J. Clinton Presidential Library]

BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief

No one will know your truth unless you share it.

No one will know the extent of your pain unless you communicate. What has convinced her that life is better if she lives it in silence — silent to the abuses, silent to the injustices, silent to the hurt? There is power in her words.

Meet Marguerite Annie Johnson, known more commonly by most as Maya Angelou.

Angelou’s life experiences were as diverse as the city of Los Angeles. This poet, actress, writer, director, producer, singer, civil rights activist and memoirist was also a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub dancer, and performer.

Many would have prematurely labeled her another sad statistic because she was poor, black, and female. She, however, overcame those negative expectations to make positive history. Angelou lived from April 4, 1928, until May 28, 2014.

At an early age, Angelou understood the power of her voice. It scared her.

At eight years old, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, who, in turn, told the rest of their family.

The culprit was found guilty but spent only one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered. Angelou internalized his death. As a result, for almost five years, she would not speak. Angelou believed her voice killed him. His actions almost killed her voice. How many voices have died?

Like others, Angelou believed she would never speak again. The world, however, is grateful she found her voice. In “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou shared her horrific experience of being abused—sexually—as a child.  She received international recognition and acclaim.

It is not surprising that Angelou, as a little girl, concluded that there was safety in being silent. Today, we have witnessed thousands of adult women break their silence to speak on their experiences of being sexually assaulted. Think about those who continue to live in silence. What, as a world, are we missing? What gifts and talents do they possess that will never flourish? What healing will she never receive because the request for help hides within her voice, which she refuses to use?

Over the course of Angelou’s life, she received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1993, she was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since 1961. Furthermore, in 2015, a United States Postal Service stamp was issued commemorating Maya Angelou.

Keisha Bell

Keisha Bell

Angelou’s life exemplifies the power of the female voice. It shows its necessity to the world. Overcoming those things that work to mute it is not easy, but because she spoke, she enriched the lives of those around her. Are you speaking?

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

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