I do not know why the caged bird sings. Not in any way to the extent that Maya Angelou did, to have been caged in by extreme brokenness and abuse and trauma and political will beyond my control – and then to live as witness to a relentless hope birthed by scars formed out of too many unyielding flames. I am a white, privileged woman born to highly educated parents who has been afforded every opportunity and more to be anything and everything I want to be. Yes, it is true that I face discrimination in my family configuration. And my experiences are a fleck of dust in the context of slavery, the Jim Crow laws of the South that still inform perception and reality in my home state and the ludicrous over-representation of people of color in prison, below-cost-of-living jobs, limited access to education and substandard housing.
Maya Angelou was – and is – one of the Sages who began to penetrate my naïve consciousness while I grew up on college campuses in the South. Her words were beautiful, devastating, encouraging, challenging and empowering. The formidable and gracious space her presence created, even on a stage several rows from me, simply made me want to be more. I wanted to be more attentive, in tune with the pulse of humanity's breadth and spurred to action and hope by the messy intersection and co-existence of brokenness and hope.
I do not know if I have achieved any of them, those budding aspirations she began all those years ago when her words and presence began their work in me. But I am working toward it, still. The news of her death reached me – quite literally through an NPR broadcast – as I drove through her hometown of Winston-Salem today following a day of discussion and debate about what we need to end homelessness in North Carolina.
My faith, and its ancient texts, talks about the clouds of witnesses that surround us. Witnesses to encourage. To empower. To tell the truth even when that truth is crushing. To push us to change everything. And hold out the promise and power of relentless hope.