“The idea of overcoming is always fascinating to me. It’s fascinating because few of us realize how much energy we have expended just to be here today. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for the overcoming.“ – Maya Angelou
I was introduced to Maya Angelou like many of us, as a high school student on my summer reading list. I confess that after more than twenty years there are few details I remember about that book, but its power resonates still. I learned that there were many reasons and ways that one’s voice could be silenced. In Maya’s case, disclosing that she was raped triggered in others a revenge so fierce that it resulted in the murder of her assailant. She learned then that her voice was so powerful, it killed someone. Accepting fault: the normal yet sensational thinking of a child. Yet her voice burned to be freed.
When I was a child, and chose to speak out, nothing happened but more of the same. In my thinking as a child, that meant that my voice had no power or meaning. In both cases, for a time, once we learned that our voice did not have the result we needed, we stopped using it. Reading her words allowed me to borrow the courage to use my voice again.
Perhaps what I most cherish about Dr. Angelou is that she felt like the universal grandmother. “There, there,” I could imagine her saying right to me, with sincerity, courage and heart: “Repeat after me child, ‘I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.'”
In a very real way, reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” granted me the courage to find my voice and to start talking about my experience once more. When I was the only one who knew my story, it was all-consuming, but shared, over time, it became just a part of me. In time and with attention and care, I’d like to believe that it has changed, but not reduced me.
We spend a decent amount of time as parents, whether we are survivors or not, trying to prepare our kids for the dangers of the world. We hope, dream and aspire that with preparation and education they will find their way to adulthood safely. Statistically, however, one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. One in seven sexual assaults is to a child under the age of six (CONNSACS). Fifteen percent of teens who have been in a relationship report having been hit, slapped or pushed by their boyfriend or girlfriend (Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence). We also cannot forget the other oppressions our children face that Dr. Angelou also fought, including racism and poverty.
One way that I can honor Maya Angelou and how she helped me to reclaim my voice to then reclaim my life, is to share what kids and teens need to hear when our preparation can’t spare them from pain. For some of us, unfortunately, our kids will have a traumatic story to share. How we hear and respond to that story can make all the difference in the world. As devastating as it can and will be to hear, you can also take some solace in reminding yourself that if Maya Angelou could survive and thrive to become the legend she became, all hope is not lost. In between your shock, breathe, then breathe again. Draw your child or your neighbor’s child close, and tell them some version of this:
- It is not your fault
- Thank you so much for telling me
- I know that took courage, and I believe you
- I’ll do what I can (whatever it takes, etc) to help you be safe
Then find some help, both for your child and for your own feelings and anger, and feel free to start here or here. While we work to end violence and oppression for generations to come, remind yourself that we can persevere. We can even live well, with joy and abundance, and with gratitude. Trust that you have what it takes to help a hurting child begin to mend.
Thank you, Maya, for all the ways you have inspired so many of us to reclaim our song.