You may have heard NPR’s 1986 interview with Maya Angelou, aired today, the day she died. If you did, — or if you read her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you know that she was mute for several years after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
She explained the dichotomy between her long-term muteness and with her facility with language and what you might think is the irony of her eloquence (not to mention her gorgeous, melodic voice). “I thought of myself as a giant ear,” she said to Terry Gross in the 1986 interview. She listened with her whole being, to voices, tones, melodies, and words.
And she taught herself to read in that way, too, not as a beginning reader, but later, when she was eight. She gives credit to her neighbor Mrs. Flowers, who introduced her to the joy of reading. As a voracious reader, she devoured every book in her black school. Mrs. Flowers, although she was a black woman had connections with the white school, borrowed books from that library. Maya ate those up, too.
She also credits Mrs. Flowers for bringing her out of her muteness. The woman asks her if she loves poetry, to which Maya responded, by writing in her notebook, “Yes.” Maya says it was a silly question; it was obvious that she did because of all of the poetry books she was reading. But she told Maya, “”You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it. Until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.”
Obviously insulted, Maya left in a huff and never wanted to see her again. Relentlessly, Mrs. Flowers sought her out and tormented Maya by telling her that she couldn’t really love poetry. Maya finally found her voice.
We mourn you Maya. And we thank you for your voice. And its legacy.