Sisterhood Blog

Maya Angelou, My Sister and Me

By Erika Davis

  • Print
  • Share Share

Getty Images

“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot — it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that, I try to make sure my experiences are positive.” — Maya Angelou

My first experience of Maya Angelou, who died this week at the age of 86, happened in high school. We weren’t required to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in a literature class and my all-girl’s private Catholic school definitely didn’t have a Black History course. No, the first time I heard Maya Angelou’s words was out of the mouth of young black women about my age performing “Phenomenal Woman” at an event for the black social organization I was a member of, Jack and Jill. I’d definitely heard poems read and recited aloud, but this was the first time I felt the words of a poet come to life. We were in our teens, so the material was a bit mature, but the fact that the artist put her own spin on Ms. Angelou’s timeless words of black female empowerment and an awareness and pride of the female body left an impression on me.

As I watched quotes and memories of Ms. Angelou pepper my Facebook feed yesterday, it became clear that her words — honest, poignant and clearly evocative of her own experience — are also universal and have touched many generations of men and women from a variety of races, religions and cultural backgrounds. Born as Marguerite Johnson in April 1928, Maya Angelou is best known for her works of literature and her activism, though she was also a Tony-nominated actress, dancer and performer as well as a professor of American History at Wake Forest University.

Ms. Angelou’s life and many accomplishments are well-documented and tributes to her life’s work can be found all over television and news outlets by writers far more eloquent than I. Yet, to my mind it doesn’t matter that she was Maya Angelou the author, the activist the whatever. She was simply Mom to her son and Grandma to her grandchildren. While the entire world is grieving the words of this literary genius, her family is grieving the person.

When my sister passed away recently, I had to remind myself that our time on the planet isn’t guaranteed and while some people leave us too early and others leave after long, full lives, the people that are left behind feel the same level of grief, loss and sometimes anger. The impact that the people who leave us have on our lives is permanent. My sister, while not world-renowned, was a poet, artist and inspiration to our Ohio community whose words continue to inspire us and impact us and allow us to keep a piece of her gift in the times when missing her becomes unbearable. I am lucky to have lived in my sister’s presence and to have been blessed with her gift and the world is lucky to have lived in Maya Angelou’s bright presence and we are blessed to have been allowed to experience the world of Maya Angelou through her honest words. I’d like to imagine that Maya is giving Patrice some pointers on her poems in heaven.

I can only hope as we continue to lose the voices of Ms. Angelou’s generation that writers and activists continue to be inspired and galvanized by the world around them. I hope that we not only learn from the experiences of people lost, but continue to speak and write our individual truths. The world that Maya Angelou lived in when she wrote “Caged Bird” is not the world of today, but it doesn’t give us an excuse to stop the work. I think the best way to remember her work is to keep reading it, sharing it and living it so that it will be an important example of female empowerment and the unshakable drive of determined women of color.

Her memory is and always has been a blessing for us all. Baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the true judge.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: women of color, poetry, Maya Angelou, Jewish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.