Because You Have a Song – What Maya Angelou Taught Us About Choice

It’s hard to believe that a voice so eloquent, so spiritual, so unapologetic, is silent.

And yet not silent. Never again silent. Because the words left to us by the woman that the world knew as Maya Angelou have taken on a life of their own.

And they’ve given us life too, those of us who read them, lips moving and eyes widening.

Those of us who vibrate to them like invisible strings touched by a strong north wind. Who return to them, because we find, each time, a new interpretation, new implications of meaning that didn’t mean anything to the person we were yesterday, but today prove to us that we are not alone, and we are not without worth.

Tributes have poured in, from men, from women, from presidents and entertainment superstars.

Charles M. Blow, writing for The New York Times, referred to her as a spiritual and creative mother figure, saying that when he learned of her passing, “I ached the way the soul aches in the world when a great soul is lost from it.”

ABC News, in their tribute, said she “defied all probability and category.”

She defied, and defined, so much more.

She was born here. On Hickory Street. A few short miles from where I sit. In a house built of the same local bricks that surround me now.

She was raped here too. In another house just a few miles from the first, only blocks from one of my favorite coffee shops.

It was here, in this crazy combination of Eastern/Southern/like-nowhere-else-on-earth city of St. Louis, at the age of seven, that she made the choice to be silent. A choice that she continued to make for nearly six years.

It’s here in that same city that I sit with my silence. And feel her strong north wind of a voice. And know that strings are moving and I can be silent no longer.

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”

Maya Angelou

It’s been more than three years since I first tried to speak. Tentatively, apologetically, defensively.

I didn’t want pity, or anger on my behalf. I didn’t want attention, at least not for the circumstances of my life. I didn’t want understanding, because really how can one person say they understand another, just because they have similar markers in their history?

I didn’t want to blame anyone, and I didn’t want to make excuses for what I had or had not done.

Here’s what I didn’t want most of all. I didn’t want to be told what choices I should have made, how my life should have been shaped. I didn’t want judgment.

A few of my friends knew. That I’d been beaten. Almost no one knew that I’d been raped. I was eight. I didn’t have a word for it then. But of course, that’s what it was.

I suppose the energy healer, one of the first outside my inner circle to hear the extent of the abuse, meant it as a compliment when she said, “Statistically you should be an abuser too, or in a mental institution, or dead.”

I suppose she meant to say that I was strong, that I was a survivor.

But the truth is. I am not one of her statistics.

Because people like me, we are silent.

We don’t show up in her statistics, because we silently figure out how to live, or die. That’s hard. But figuring out how to speak, that’s harder.

Maya Angelou’s experience, of speaking, then going silent, believing that the man who raped her died because of what she’d said – that was one of those piercing straight-line winds that nearly tore my invisible strings apart.

Because we know, if we speak, there will be consequences. To others. And to us.

But I’m learning too, the consequences of silence.

I suppose that’s why I was asked to write this. Because Jacob knows the story I’m bearing. He’s read the (partly) fiction novel that I wrote and then left sitting, unpublished.

He knows, too, that being part of the conversation on The Good Men Project brings me into daily contact with others who are breaking silence. Others who are taking risks, speaking the unspeakable, challenging the what-is, and demanding the what-could-be.

I wasn’t asked to write for The Good Men Project because I have an answer. But because I have a song.

It’s never an easy choice to speak. To tell your truth with conviction and compassion puts you in the range of those who are threatened by any truth but their own.

But it’s the only choice we have if we want to see change in the world. Silence is not an option.

“I created myself,” she said. And we all do. Because our choices create the person we become.

I wrote about choices in the wake of the killings in California. And I find myself writing about choices here as well.

“But what stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life.”

Oprah Winfrey

Because that is what defines our lives in the end, isn’t it? Not the circumstances, not the events, but the choices.

So the bird chooses to sing. Not because it has an answer. But because it has a song.

As I sit, here in the city that celebrates Maya Angelou as one of its own, I return to her words again. Finding a new interpretation, new implications of meaning that didn’t mean anything yesterday, but today serve to remind me that I am not alone, I am not without worth, and I am not without a voice.

And I ask, not why the caged bird sings, but why any of us choose to be silent.

Because if we all make the choice, to raise our voice against hate, against violence, against anger and fear. If we all make the choice to raise our voice for people, of all races, genders, beliefs, and backgrounds. If we make that choice, I believe we can create such a hymn of celebration that people like me need never be a statistic of silence, never need to choose between the rock of living or the hard place of dying, never weigh the consequences of speaking against the agony of keeping the story inside.

The once-caged voice is silent. But the song need never be.

Not if you, and I, give up our silence and choose to sing.

Originally published on The Good Men Project

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