I was in a room with Dr. Maya Angelou once, at an intimate gathering in New York City on Oct. 14, 2011, for the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. The purpose of which was to spread the word about and raise funds for the organization’s international symposium, held in Accra, Ghana, in 2013. Dr. Angelou was the last of several speakers that included Sapphire and the late Jayne Cortez. Dr. Angelou spoke for no more than 15 minutes, but her words of encouragement serve me still. I, a woman and poet of color from the South, am amazed at the trajectory and longevity of Dr. Angelou’s career, given the time in which she lived and the circumstances into which she was born. In person, her voice was more thunderous than I’d imagined. She was escorted in singing: I opened my mouth to the morning/I won’t turn back. No! And just moments later, she took us all to church.
We keep on keeping on, don’t we? I’m so grateful. I’m grateful to be party to this party. I’m grateful that you won’t forget me because I won’t forget you. I call on you all the time. I make myself available to you and you know this is so. You can call on me all of the time and I’m there. I always come when you call me. Isn’t it true? The most important thing, I think, is to be present—to be present all the time, all the time to be present. Bring your whole self all the time. Don’t shuck and jive. Bring your whole self.
“I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.” …When you look at this statement tonight, in your encyclopedia, under Terence (one “r”), you will find besides his name in italics is “Terentius Afer.” He was an African. He was a slave. He was sold to a Roman senator. The senator freed him. He became the most popular playwright in Rome… “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.” My Lord! That statement is liberating! It not only liberates me from other people’s ignorance, it liberates me from my own…
A woman is no small matter. A man is no small matter. A man may be four feet tall. He may be white. He may be black. He may be anything, but you know when you’re in the company of a man. You know when you’re in the company of a woman. She can be pretty, plain, fat, thin—it doesn’t matter. A woman is going to respect you and, if you are disrespectful, a woman is going to say, “Excuse me, not here you don’t.” A man is going to say, “Excuse me. No, no, not here you don’t.”
I am proud and grateful to God to be an African American woman… I never understood why some men wanted women who didn’t know anything. Wait a minute! Run that by me one more time!... You just want somebody to feel superior to. Suppose you have a heart attack. I think the wise thing is to take responsibility for the time you take up and the space you occupy. So women, if you’re with men, who don’t respect you, too bad, too sad, your bad because you can’t count on them. And men, if you’re with women, who don’t know who they are, too bad, too sad, your bad, they can’t help you.
I come to these gatherings where black women are here, and black men, and I hope other people are here cause we learn from each other and you have to learn that, you have to know that. I love being an African American woman. Now, if I were a white woman, I’d learn what that is. I’d learn because there are some white women that have been heroes and I’d like to know them… I know that some of them don’t know their history to know that they’ve already been paid for, so they don’t act in accordance with their inheritance. But there are women, Asians, Spanish-speaking, Native American, white American, African American, African women, who have paid for us already. And it behooves us to respect them and not to carry along useless baggage.