Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou.
When I was twelve, I first read “Gather Together In My Name” by Maya Angelou. I was reading her books in the wrong order, I know, but it was the first one I came across in my quest to discover more about black literature, and learn more about my heritage.
There have been times in my life, where I, as a biracial person haven’t felt black in any way, times, when I’ve felt black throughout my entire body, and times, when I feel like an awkward, but accepting mixture of black and white. I know the actual blackness, or right to claim blackness of biracial people is a difficult, divisive, and sometimes sensitive subject for people. I’m not going to tell you I have all the answers, I absolutely don’t, but what I will tell you, is that reading the work of Maya Angelou, even in the wrong order, gave me a peace and acceptance that I wish I had owned from the start of my life.
I was never given much black literature to study during school, and that was where I got most of my reading material. It wasn’t until GCSE English classes when a few poems by black writers sat shyly behind the blindingly white majority in the AQA Anthology, that I discovered it in the curriculum, but before that, at the age of twelve, I grew impatient, and determined to learn more about myself and since I loved to read, that seemed the obvious place to start. I knew black writing probably existed, and much further back than the Anthology would have me believe. How could it not? Black people existed, and they all had voices, no matter who tried to silence them. Where there are voices, there is literature.
There was a lot, that at the age of twelve, and probably even now, I hadn’t experienced. There was however a lot contained in “Gather In My Name” that I could relate to. I found understanding, in so many things that nobody had ever been able to explain to me before. It isn’t that people never tried, but there are some things that just can’t be articulated by someone who has never experienced it, and probably never will. I had spent years reading one half of my life, and feeling there was a part of me missing, before discovering that all the questions, insecurities and mysteries of the other half had been answered, loudly and beautifully, through the literature of Maya Angelou. I read through everything of hers I could find, before delving into more and more black writers, addicted to learning about my other family and the black community that I had exiled myself from, due to a naïve, afraid, untrue belief that I couldn’t be a part of it. I finally had the confidence to ask if I could be included in the other side of myself, after feeling I had no right to.
I felt more connected to my father’s side of the family. We had shared nationality and language, but I never felt we shared race before, because while I had (and still have) some black features, and a black parent, I felt separated. Maybe we still don’t share race, according to some, and maybe I will never truly know or experience life as a black woman (again, this comes down to how you define blackness, but that is another blog post, really), but I felt closer, not by speaking, but by listening, reading, and learning. The half of my life I had never reached before was finally with me, and I felt complete. The isolation of only understanding one side of myself was lifted, and while my identity was still growing, I could feel it was closer and clearer than ever before.
There are realities for black women that will never be my own, due to the privileges afforded to me, as a biracial woman, but the things we do share, I have been able to understand, and discuss, and that never would have been possible, without picking up that first (actually second, but…) Maya Angelou autobiography, and so, on what would have been her eighty eighth birthday, I am thankful for Maya Angelou, for helping me understand myself, and who I could be.
COME FIND ME