Our legacy outlives our days on this earth. One's legacy is typically shared through storytelling from one family's generation to the next, but sometimes, it's shared on an even larger scale through a platform that reaches a local community or even the world. In a month where we celebrate our collective legacies as African-Americans, we honor our successes. We hone in on the results, but maybe the true victories are in the journey. I'll share a story with you about a woman you likely know whose journey may be less familiar but nonetheless inspiring:
In the early 1920s, she was born in the gateway to the west, better known as St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother and father's turbulent marriage ended in divorce when she was just three years old. Her parents sent her to Stamps, Arkansas to live with her grandmother who owned a thriving general store during a historically challenging time of the Great Depression and World War II. Stamps was a segregated town that introduced her to hatred and racism. The experience challenged her identity in ways that jarred her with rage and self-loathe. Due to the traumas of her adolescence, she remained practically mute for five years. Some believe that it was in these years of silence that she gained a keen understanding of human behavior and developed a deep love for literature. Through the help of a wise woman she dearly admired, and her belief that "poetry was music written for the human voice", she reclaimed her own.
She eventually moved to San Francisco, California where she studied acting and dance at the California Labor School and attended George Washington High School. Momentarily, she dropped out of school and became the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She resumed school and graduated at the age of seventeen. Shortly after, she gave birth to her first and only son.
By the mid 1950s, her hard work and diligence began to payoff as she landed a role in the opera Porgy and Bess. She developed a new stage name at this time that was a combination of her childhood nickname and a shortened version of one of her ex-husband's surnames. In 1957, she appeared in the musical, Calypso Heat Wave, and released her first album titled Miss Calypso. She later appeared in Jean Genet's play, The Blacks.
She spent most of the 1960s living overseas in Ghana and Egypt where she worked as a freelance writer and editor. She also became close friends with Malcolm X and helped him form the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964. Upon Malcolm X's assassination in 1965, the organization was disbanded.
James Baldwin, a fellow writer and close friend urged her to not shy from her personal journey, but to embrace it through her craft. She took his advice to heart and wrote the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In 1995, she was honored as a record setter for remaining on The New York Times' paperback nonfiction best-seller list for two years.
By the 1970s, she earned a Tony Award nomination and Emmy Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away and her contributions to the television miniseries Roots, respectively. She also published a collection of poetry that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize called Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die. In 1972, she was the first black woman to have her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, produced as a film.
In 1993, she was invited to recite an original poem, 'On the Pulse of Morning', at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, in which the audio version won a Grammy Award for best spoken word album. She spent her later years between Harlem, New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the age of 86, she passed away on May 28, 2014.
If you haven't figured it out already, this is the legacy of the phenomenal woman herself, Maya Angelou. She was an American author, poet, screenwriter, dancer, and civil rights activist. In truth, this story reflects only a small portion of all that she experienced and attained in her lifetime. Her story plagues me to ponder about my own legacy and what stories will be passed about me from one generation to the next. Angelou said, "In the flush of love's light, we dare to be brave, and suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet, it is only love which sets us free." Surely, the journey makes us what we will be.
For assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."
You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
BeYoutiful, keep life sweet, & never stop feeding your soul. -xo