Current Events

Story-Living: Reflections on Maya Angelou

Jasmine Holmes

I folded myself into the comfortable kitchen chair, legs dangling, head inclined towards my two chosen companions for the post-Memorial Day feast, the 85-year-old grandmother and her best friend. The two of them sat across from me, alternately talking in low tones to one another and turning to me. I alternately eavesdropped, pretending to listen to the second wave of the evening news upon which they offered murmured commentary, and asking them questions.

“Child,” one of them told me for the third time that evening, “there is nothing wrong with getting old, but it sure ain’t convenient.”

I chuckled. “Yes, ma’am.”

“But you don’t know much about that,” she said, throwing me a warm smile. “Not as much as me, baby. Cause, you know how old I am? 99.”

“I don’t believe it!”

“I tell you the truth! February 15, 1915. That’s my birthday. I was born right down the road, and I’ve lived in these parts all my life.”

I marveled for two reasons: first of all, she didn’t seem 99. She didn’t look it, nor did she act it. She lived alone and ambled to and fro like a woman twenty years younger. Sharp and lucid, she was ready to talk: “But you’ll have to speak up, honey, because my hearing isn’t what it used to be.”

Secondly, I have never met a ninety-nine-year-old woman. Ninety-nine! World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, Vietnam, King’s freedom rides… I exclaimed all of this to her, and she nodded: “Seen it all.” I said, “What are some of the things you’ve done for a living throughout the years?” She laughed at me like the city girl I am: “Child, I worked the fields.”

I hope Sister Edwards lives to her 100th birthday, and I hope she has a huge party, and I hope I’m invited, because she is ninety-nine and she has stories to tell and she will tell you all about them.

Maya Angelou died yesterday at 86.

And I felt the punch in my gut, because her voice has always made me feel like I was sitting at a kitchen table, cozied up in a comfortable chair, eyes full of wonder, ears wide open, anxious for the wisdom she had accrued, aching for the passion she expressed, touched by the beauty with which she spun her words.

I did not agree with everything this woman said or believed.

But she was a woman who felt near and dear to me because she made herself dear to a young woman seeking to draw near to a storyteller who was spinning tales that had meaning. I looked up to her as a brilliant author who brought me to my knees the first time I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. She wasn’t telling a fairytale: she was sharing her life, her pain, and her triumph, and the way she told her story, the way she embraced honesty and dignity in the midst of struggle, the way that woman just told the truth like the steely aging matriarch we all know, or want to know.

Her life was a piece of history. She was friends with James Baldwin, for goodness’ sake. The James Baldwin. And she had experienced so many different aspects of life in so many different periods of history, right there, on the forefront, and she shared them. She shared all of them. And I watched her in wonder.

Maya Angelou is the member of a dying breed. And as we mourn the loss of her voice, I hope we cling all the more to the other voices that speak wisdom accrued from age. I hope we yearn to hear and tell their stories. I hope we long to keep intact their vibrant history. And I’m grateful to Angelou for paving the way.

I don’t know how long the Lord will allow me to tarry. Maybe 86 years, maybe 99, or maybe far less will be afforded to me. But should I grow to possess old hair and a legacy, my prayer is that it will be one of faithfulness to the Word of God and its advancement among the nations.

Angelou didn’t just start being an amazing storyteller when she was advanced in age: She’s been an amazing story-liver her entire life. Sister Edwards didn’t set out to be ninety-nine… she just faithfully lived ninety-nine years.

So, today, right now, I am –and you are –walking the road that could one day be a point of contact for a younger soul staring at us in wonder and asking what it was like. What will I tell them? What will you say?

Maya said plenty, and she said it well. And much of it, I’d cringe to listen to (my worldview is showing). As she passes, who are the storytellers standing in her wake to fill the gap? And as they pass, who will the next storytellers be? Will they spin tales of triumph and grace, or will they be tales of complacency? Will the most polished voices of the next generations be the voices of others, or will they be the voices of God’s people proclaiming his faithfulness?

Because Angelou spoke. And she spoke loud and clear, her voice resonating across generations.

Will our voices resonate?

And will we help the voices of the older Sisters in our lives to carry long after they are gone?

I hope so. I dream so.

Goodbye to Maya Angelou, a woman who knew how to speak up. May younger women follow suit, and may our message herald the faithfulness of our God through our story-living.

Check back with me in 60 years. Maybe I’ll be telling you, “There’s nothing wrong with getting old, but it sure ain’t convenient. Boy, the stories I could tell…”

2 thoughts on “Story-Living: Reflections on Maya Angelou

  1. Brandt Hardin

    Maya Angelou spoke beyond race and gender rights issues she spoke of the universal human spirit. I was touched to witness her speak locally at Austin Peay University back in 1998 when I was just a senior in high school. This week I was compelled to pay tribute to her with my artwork. You can see my portrait of the author along with some inspiring words of hers at Drop by and tell me how her life’s work inspired you as well!

  2. Brent Kooi

    Wonderful tribute to a classy lady. Ms. Angelou was a class act in so many ways — beautiful words, beautiful voice, beautiful woman, often a very ugly story, but a beautiful attitude nonetheless. From what I have found about her, she did not know the beauty of the Savior. As Christians, we have so much more reason to be class acts and to reveal the beauty of the grace we all know.

Leave A Comment