How Maya Angelou gave me life

Editor’s Note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

LZ Granderson found inspiration in his darkest moments from Maya Angelou's writings

Granderson: Despite decline of books, the written word is still powerful and can heal

Her last written words: "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God"

CNN  — 

I never had the chance to meet Maya Angelou. But she has been in my life all along.

In some of my darkest moments, her prose was a lit candle.

When I felt alone, her words were my company.

LZ Granderson

The times when I saw the glass ceiling hovering over my career, suffocating my joy, turning my hard-fought acceptance of my truth into a self-loathing cage from which I saw no escape, Maya Angelou came to me and said she knew why I sing.

As much as she is known as a great defender of women’s rights and lyrical curator of the black experience, I found so many of her words transcended the plight of any one particular group. She was so adept at linking us all through the human condition. I know I’ll never be as good a writer as she was. But it’s because of the effect her gift continues to have on me that I continue to try.

I never had the chance to meet Maya Angelou.

But her poem “Phenomenal Woman” found me.



Frozen in my seat decades ago when a well-meaning English teacher asked me to read a few stanzas out loud. A teenage boy is not supposed to say such things. A closeted teenage boy may be found out. Filled with anxiety, I abruptly refused and after a look, the teacher moved on, picking another student.

Food, friends and freedom: Nikki Giovanni remembers Maya Angelou

But Maya Angelou stayed right there with me. “Phenomenal Woman” stayed right there with me. The images of the words resting in the recesses of my mind, until saying “I’m a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me” no longer threatened to define or paralyze me. Instead, when I finally had the courage, I found her words liberated me from the arbitrary rules of gender normality and my own internalized homophobia.

I don’t think I’ve ever shared that story with anyone before. Even as I was writing that passage, I was acutely aware that some readers will mock me for this disclosure.

And it’s because of Dr. Angelou that I smile at this prospect.

“You have no idea who you will inform because all of us are caged birds, have been and will be again,” she said in 1998 at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign. “Caged by somebody else’s ignorance. Caged because of someone else’s small-mindedness. Caged because of someone else’s fear, hate and sometimes, caged by our own lack of courage.”

Maya Angelou remembered by those she inspired

An article in USA Today, written about her 80th birthday, touched on her rape at 7 by her mother’s boyfriend. He was later murdered by her uncles. She stopped talking to anyone but her brothers for five years because she felt responsible for his death.

She told the newspaper what her grandmother said about her silence: “‘Sister’ – she called me sister – ‘Momma don’t care what other people say about you. Momma knows when you and the Lord are ready, you goin’ to be a teacher.’”

The financial despair of newspapers, the decline of the neighborhood bookstore, the drop in book sales all suggest that the written word has lost its value. While it is true that electronic media have changed the vessel, that should never be mistaken for a decline in the value of the cargo it carries. Whether it be on a page of a magazine, a handwritten note or an e-mail, the power of the written word is still an inescapable force that can wound or heal. Deceive or reveal. Disregard or save.

Maya Angelou: Some of her most powerful speeches

Consider the last thing Maya Angelou wrote: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God” – a tweet that is every bit as clear as any line found from her 1971 collection, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die.”

I never had the chance to meet Maya Angelou.

But when I needed encouragement, she came to me.

In poems and in the songs of her album “Miss Calypso.”

She came to me through the familiar smell of aged paper that erupts from a book that hasn’t been opened in quite a long time.

She came to me when I met a subtle, homophobic slight at the office with a smile and knowing look that said, “You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

I never had the chance to meet Maya Angelou.

Not in this life anyway.

But her words have always been a constant companion to me and I pray they will remain so until the day our two souls meet. And on that day I will say to her with tears in my eyes, “Hello, dear friend.”

Opinion: Maya Angelou: The definition of a phenomenal woman

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