It happens all too often. Young children are sexually abused, molested by family members or friends of the family. More often than not, the abuser is someone trusted not only by the child, but also by the family.
Like many other children, one girl experienced molestation at a young age. I suspect her trauma would have been much like other children who experience this same violation. The emotional scars run deep. There’s often a significant level of confusion. Personal boundaries are shattered. Shame results from the false belief that the victim somehow caused the abuse to happen. It’s difficult to admit that it occurred to oneself let alone to someone else.
Yet, this girl recognized what happened to her. Further, she had the courage to speak up. That must have been so difficult, especially 70 years ago in the South. But she spoke and adults believed her.
Her abuser was quickly arrested. For whatever reasons, he was jailed for only one night. Perhaps he thought he was safe, but he wasn’t. He was found dead the day after his release. Someone had beaten him to death.
She overheard the police tell her family what had happened to the abuser. As if the shame of the abuse was not enough, now she was overcome with guilt. She told the truth of what happened to her and because of what she said, a man was now dead. She felt responsible. She vowed to not speak again. For several years, she remained silent.
This is but one tragic event from the life of the childhood of writer, activist, and entertainer Maya Angelou. She was born around the corner from a coffee shop I used to frequent when I lived in St. Louis. It was a neighborhood of red brick homes on narrow streets. From a humble beginning, and after repeated tragedies, Dr. Angelou’s life, writing, and spoken word were a significant inspiration to many people – including me. I first encountered her writing while working with people with AIDS in the early 1980’s.
As riveting as I found her poetry, what was most precious to me about Angelou’s life was her personal transformation. Her autobiographic books recount the enormous challenges she faced in childhood as well as later in life. While the specifics of the hardship are unique to her, many people are born into poverty, who experience sexual abuse early in life, or are routinely marginalized because of race, gender, or other aspects of their identity. I’ve known and worked with many people who have experienced a mere fraction of the tragedy Dr. Angelou faced in life yet remained crippled by cycles of addiction. Some become bullies and abusers themselves. But Dr. Angelou transformed her pain and rose above it. Her life demonstrates the resiliency of the human spirit. That was particularly important to me at a time when I witnessed so many people suffer tragic deaths due to complications from AIDS.
I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Angelou speak on two occasions. While the settings were different and the specific content changed, the essential message was consistent. That consistent message is found in the quote frequently found on social media sites: “You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.”
The memory I hold most dear of Dr. Angelou is watching her during a presentation at the University of Pittsburgh. The event was hosted by the Black Student Association around 1990. She invited a few of the young black men onto the stage from where she spoke. As a handful came to the stage, she told them, “Show me what you have. I want your best raps.” At first, a bit embarrassed, they began to recite words with rhyme and rhythm drawing some applause from the audience. Then, in a sweet and playful way, the women who could have been their grandmother, motioned for them to step back. “Now let me show you something.” She opened a small, old book and began to snap her fingers to a beat. With a nod, she invited the audience to join the beat as we all began to snap our fingers with her. She read a poem in the style of a contemporary rapper. The words were from a different era but they flowed into the rhythm just as smoothly as those of a rap star. In the end, she explained that the lyrics were from an ancestor – one who was a slave generations ago. She went on rapping with lyrics translated from African songs and other old texts. When she was finished, she looked over at the young men and explained: never accept an insult for your music or feel put down because of your rap. This is the music in your bones. It’s been in all our own bones since our ancestors were in Africa. It’s the music and rhythm of our lives.
It wasn’t just that Dr. Angelou encouraged African-Americans to take pride in Black culture. Instead, she encouraged all people to take pride in who they are. She knew what it was like to be treated with prejudice and disdain. Her own healing led her to demonstrate that it is possible for people to stand with integrity and pride despite life’s tragedies. Yet, even more, she encouraged people to expect greatness from their inner depths no matter their circumstances. As she was known to say, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
I was saddened to learn of Maya Angelou’s passing on May 28. I lost one of my heroes in life. Her life story, example, and poetry helped me to look past tragedy and difficult circumstances and affirm the unfathomable goodness of life. I continue to be inspired by her dynamic, positive energy, inner strength, and incredible resiliency. While I was taught from a young age to do my best, even though I never met her, Maya Angelou taught me to be and to do better than I ever thought I could.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.