Happy Monday beautiful people,
When I was thinking about who to write about on this day, I began meditating on the fact that last week was the first day of Spring, which is the start of the real “new year.” And today is the new moon in Aries, which marks the first sign of the zodiac and represents a time to start anew and to embody confident leadership.
I thought about who represents the process of always beginning anew? Who represents being a chameleon and who embraced her life, the ups and downs, twists and turns? Who best represented the realization that one can and should always rise to the top? And one name came to me; Mama Maya Angelou.
As always, we tend to remember our sheros as grandmothers and wise sages who showered us with their experience and love. And while Mama Maya gives us all of that, Mama Maya wasn’t ALWAYS 86 years old, her age when she passed. She wasn’t always a poet, writer and wise woman.
Mama Maya constantly reinvented herself, pushed past other people’s limits of her and truly embodied the African proverb, “You do what you want when you poppin.” Thanks Future, for that sage wisdom.
Born in 1928, Maya grew up in the depression era south. We all know by now, that she was raped by her mother’s “friend” and when she told her family, the man was found guilty but only spent 1 day in jail. A few days later he was found dead. For 5 years after that Maya did not speak a word. Afraid that her words had killed the man who raped her, she feared killing again.
It wasn’t until a teacher, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, came into Maya’s life and introduced her to the world of literature and the power of language that Maya did speak again.
Yall hear me? It wasn’t until she found the powerful voices and stories of others that she was able to reconnect to her own. It is my belief that Mrs. Flowers helped Maya to see that the power of both life and death is in the tongue and in the pen.
Let’s really break this down:
Diasporic people are a storytelling people. Actually, all indigenous people are/were. The griot, for diasporic people were the holders of the past, the present and the future.
Talking, storytelling, clowning, word play, writing, rehearsing, revising, all of those characteristics are in our blood. We are an expressive people, in our dress, in our mannerism, in our communication styles. Expression is our birthright.
So, if you are to believe that is true, when you’re in your classrooms and the conversation is dead, or it’s like puling teeth to get our students to write, much less revise, what do you think could be the problem?
Most teachers would say, those kids aren’t engaged. I would agree. And then I would push it farther by asking, is what you’re asking them to do engaging? And how are you asking them (limiting the way they are able) to express what they’re doing and learning?
As a matter of fact, let’s not talk of the seemingly non-engaged student. Let’s focus on the “engaged” ones. Are they really engaged or are they just playing the game of school, very well?
Ok, so let’s get back to My gyal Maya.
As a fully speaking and eloquent teenager, Maya became the FIRST Black streetcar conductor in San Francisco and a teenage parent at 17.
At 18, Maya began working in the sex business as a prostitute, a table dancer and eventually a madame. She spills ALL OF THAT TEA in her book, Gather Together in My Name. Maya, says she wrote this book because “she can admit where she has been” and she wanted young people to know that they are essentially always redeemable.
“It is important that you write it.” Please understand what Maya says, in this video and with those words. Our children, our young people are full of their stories and understandings and it is important that we give them brave and safe spaces to write their stories, tell their stories, sing their stories, rhyme their stories, bring forth their stories. And let me tell you, those stories don’t fit into no five paragraph essay.
Furthermore, the experiences of our young people are integral to their storytelling ability. If our young people can’t make mistakes and be loved in the midst of making those mistakes, how many Maya’s are we slowly killing?
As a young adult, Maya went from dancing on table tops to studying modern and African dance and began another profession as a dancer, this one with less dollar bills being thrown her way. Eventually, Maya toured the country and Europe as a calypso dancer and singer and released an album called Miss. Calypso.
After her Calypso career, Maya desired to develop her writing and so she moved to New York City and joined the Harlem Writers Guild where her first works were published. It was early in the 1960’s, which means, the Civil Rights movement was about to pop off and Maya was on the pulse of it. After hearing MLK speak, Maya decided to get down with the cause and eventually became an organizer for the Southern Leadership Conference. This was the beginning of Maya’s activism and the continuation of her ability to become anything she wanted.
At 33 years old in 1961, Maya and her son Guy moved to Cairo Egypt to live with her lover, Vusumzi Make, a South African activist and lawyer. She was an editor and writer. Eventually, after they broke up, Maya moved to Accra Ghana and worked as an administrator at the University of Ghana.While she continued to write and work in all forms of media, she continued to be an activist and was seemingly enjoying her life.
In 1965, Maya met Malcolm and came back to New York City to help him build a new civil rights organization. However, he was assassinated shortly after they’d return and with that murder, Maya retreated. The summer of 1965, Maya was in LA as the Watts riots took place and she documented the unrest and violence. In 1968, MLK asked Maya to help organize another march for him, to which she agreed, and then on her 40th birthday, April 4th 1968, King was assassinated.
Depressed and in pain, it was her great friend James Baldwin who helped her to release her pain through creative endeavors. She wrote, produced and narrated a 10 part documentary series called Blacks Blues Black, which discussed the connection between blues music and black heritage. And completed her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Ok, so I’m stopping right here with Maya at 40 years old in 1968. So let’s review the alchemy of her life:
- As a child, Maya is sexually assaulted and silences herself for 5 years, for fear that her voice or words can kill.
- At 10, lured by a wise teacher. Maya regains her desire to speak through the beauty of literature and the power of stories. She realizes her words also have the power to give life.
- At 17 she becomes the first Black streetcar conductor and a teenage parent.
- At 18 she becomes involved with the sex industry, works as a prostitute, dancer and madame.
- At 26 she becomes a professional dancer and Calypso singer and travels throughout Europe.
- At 32 she becomes a civil rights activist and organizer and supports MLK’s vision.
- At 33 she moves to Cairo, Egypt and eventually Accra, Ghana and has a love affair while pursuing a career as a writer and reporter and continues her activism work.
- At 37 she returns to NYC to support Malcolm X in developing a new Civil Rights Organization, Malcolm is assassinated shortly after her return.
- At 40 she prepares to help organize for MLK, he is assassinated which drives her to create a documentary and write her first autobiography.
So, let me hip you to some numerology here. 40 is the number of transition and change. 40 represents a new beginning. It also symbolizes a time of trial and tribulations. In the Bible, you will find that people had to go through 40 days or 40 years before a new beginning took place. Both Malcolm and Martin were murdered at 39 years old, both on the precipice of a new beginning.
40, became a new beginning for Mama Maya as well but she wouldn’t have gotten there without engaging in alchemy.
Please remember that an alchemist takes what they have and transforms it into something spectacular. Alchemy is chemistry before chemistry. It is the mysterious power of spirit used to transform lead into gold. And as teachers, we are beckoned to become alchemists. And let’s be clear that the lead in this case is not our students, their parents, or our communities. We are the lead. We are what needs to be transformed into gold.
If you have never read The Alchemist, make it happen!
So, as we enter into this time of new beginnings, remember that we always get a chance to start anew in our practices and we must always allow our students the opportunities to begin again, as many times as they need.
We must hold true to the proverb, you do what you want when you poppin! So dear educator, what do you want to do?
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