Maya Angelou didn’t call herself a Christian. The famed poet, memoirist, activist and author, who chronicled her life in several autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, saw calling yourself a Christian as referring to something that was complete, rather than a work in progress.
“I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian,’” she said in a 2011 interview, on the occasion of her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being."
Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 28 at age 86. Many of her fans, including myself, called her Maya, as if we knew her. Because we did, to a certain extent. As news spread of her passing, my Facebook newsfeed became a memorial to this giant of our age. Men and women, black and white, wrote about their first discovery of her work and posted lines from her writings and speeches. And I cried a little as I listened to a recording of her performing “And Still I Rise.”
I think I first discovered her when I was about 12 years old. My memory is fuzzy on the when, where and how, but I do remember how it made me feel, which is what Maya set out to do with her work. I read my mother’s copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and flew through the pages as if they were on fire. I was on fire to read more, to write and to understand and to ask questions. Maya showed me and many other women - particularly black women - that we were beautiful and our voices should be heard, our stories shouted from the rooftops. Because God don’t make no junk.
As I read the many obituaries and reflected on that realization from years ago, I recognized that many of the themes in her work that called to me also drew me to the work of my Father - the work of His instilling His identity in me. Rising in the face of something trying to knock you down (“And Still I Rise”), after all, harkens back to James 1:2-4.
I read my mother’s copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and flew through the pages as if they were on fire.
Although she rarely spoke with great specificity about her faith, it is in her few words that we can begin to get a sense of what motivated her - not some vague spirituality, but a certainty in God’s existence and the glory of forgiveness, even in the face of profound suffering.
In a 2013 interview with the Times-Picayune, Maya said that she believed in God because that’s what she was taught. She became courageous, however, when she internalized that belief. “I dared to do anything that was a good thing. I dared to do things as distant from what seemed to be in my future,” she said. “When I was asked to do something good, I often say yes, I'll try, yes, I'll do my best. And part of that is believing, if God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can't do?”