What Maya Taught Me

Words are not enough to express the sense of loss I felt after hearing of Dr. Maya Angelou’s death yesterday morning.

Photo of Maya Angelou smiling
Source: Forsyth Medical Center, via PR Newswire

I woke up around 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, to a flurry of tweets and Facebook updates announcing the passing of the poet, activist, writer, educator and champion of civil rights, Dr. Maya Angelou. I won’t say that I was a die-hard fan, because I truly wasn’t. But her work has resonated with me since my teenage years, especially during my struggle in high school with an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is still one of my all-time favorite books with so many messages, themes, and quotes that I can share with all of you all day. But it is the poem, Caged Bird, that I still carry with me and repeat to myself during my darkest days.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

I would read this poem forwards, backwards, would try to memorize each line, letting the syllables roll off my tongue. It was a hymn, a prayer, a poem of hope. I often felt like a caged bird during that time period of my life, not only due to the typical pressures of being a teenager, but with trying to grasp the meaning of love demonstrated by someone who did not truly love me. My first real relationship had all of the components of young love — recklessness, awkwardness, but most of all, passion for each other and for life. But as the common narrative goes, the love turned sour and dangerously bordered, obsession, dominance, selfishness, verbal, sexual, and physical abuse. But despite all of that, I loved him. I loved him with every fiber of my being. And because I loved him so deeply, I protected him every time our relationship was called into question. I often said, “It’s because I made him mad” or “He was just having a bad day” or whatever reason I could come up with to defend his abusive and erratic behaviors against me. I was caged and imprisoned in his world, and often times I felt that the only way out would be death.

The abuse got to a point where my mom started to recognize the signs. He would make sure that I snuck out late at night to see him and on one fateful night, my mom caught me. She forced me to break up with him, but doing this only ignited his anger more. My family began receiving harassment with his excessive phone calls throughout the day and night and other times he would just show up at our doorstep demanding to see me. On more than one occasion he followed me home from work or school in order to catch me alone. He cornered me one night, and for a brief moment I thought as I saw him standing before me, blocking the exit out of the narrow garage, that this was it. It was either I get back into a relationship with him, while he slowly killed me day after day, or that he just kill me right then and there. He fortunately didn’t have a weapon on him, but I knew enough times in the past that not having a weapon didn’t matter – I was still in danger of being murdered by his hands. So I screamed.

I was lucky that there happened to be neighbors around, I was lucky that my mom was there one minute later, and I was lucky that I had the support of family and friends when I filed a restraining order against him. But there were others, many people, that did not believe me. We had been together for almost two years, we were the ideal role model happy couple, and now all of a sudden, he’s raped and abused me this entire time? These words of disbelief eventually followed me in my early years of college, whenever I encountered a former classmate from high school. “You weren’t raped. Why would you lie about something like that? You ruined his life.”

It’s difficult even now to write about this, because the shame and guilt I carry still with me has not completely been erased. But that is why I still read Caged Bird, after all of these years, it is a reminder that there was a time when I was locked away, forbidden to receive unconditional love. But he is gone now and those memories are now mere fragments of a painful past. Though the pain still persists, with some days better than others, I know now that talking about that past experience is truly what has set me free.

Thank you for continuing to give me hope, Maya.

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Luann

Feminist, Pinay, coffee lover, boba aficionado and pop culture enthusiast. Current graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dwelling in the rainy city of Portland, Oregon but always California dreaming. You can also read more of her articles at browngirldecolonized.com

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