ago, Mama Maya spoke here in Santa Cruz. I was not able to attend (thankfully, I had seen her throughout the Bay Area several times prior) but I did write a piece in my blog (2.28.2011).
I am reposting it today.
Here is my fantasy: Someone has invited me to dine with Maya Angelou before she speaks here on Friday evening, March 18. Little 'Ole Me is going to share a meal with a national treasure and one of the great voices of contemporary literature. She is a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. After having a delightful meal where she has regaled her guests with stories of her travels, I ask if I can tell a story about how one of her early poems saved my sanity. She smiles and nods yes, and then offer me a piece of her cheesecake.
"It was in the the late '70s, I was fresh out of Georgetown University and working as a public relations specialist for a major pharmaceutical corporation in New Jersey, not far from my home town.
"As Goddess would have it, I was the youngest member of the department, the only female, and the only African-American. I worked with five seasoned PR executives, and my supervisor, a young man named Paul, who had been with the company for about five years, and recently had been promoted from the position I was hired to fill.
"One of my major responsibilities included editing a weekly company magazine. On this particular summer day, I had written an article about American students who had just returned from traveling abroad as exchange students.
"The story caught my eye because I, too, had been an exchange student seven years earlier and I was eager to hear about the experiences of the two recent sojourners. One was an African-American young woman who had spent the year in Japan; the other a white male student who had lived in Mexico. Both had lived with families who had younger children. I can only imagine part of the reason the parents chose to be host families to American scholars was because they thought it would be an educational experience for their children, as well as for the exchange students.
"As it turned out, on this day, I was the one to get an education.
"I had received a packet of photographs from the exchange program and had no trouble picking the perfect one to accompany my piece. The photos of the young lady showed her dressed in Japanese attire (as was the rest of her host family) sitting on the floor around a low table, sharing a meal. The photos of the young man depicted him dressed in blue jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers standing in front of a little Mexican boy, who was on his knees polishing the American student's...sneakers. Polishing his sneakers, do you hear me? On his knees, as the student towered over him.
"I was flabbergasted that the exchange program would release a picture of a student in such an imperialistic pose. Without question, I chose the photo of the other student to represent the purpose and the spirit of exchange programs.
"I expected the PR men with whom I worked to see, as clearly as I did, that the picture of the male student was bad PR. I was not prepared for my supervisor to question my judgment. He did more than that. He told me that the picture I had chosen, the picture of an African-American young woman, could not represent an American exchange student living abroad. 'Readers might be confused about who is the American,' he said.
" 'How is that possible? Everybody else at the table is Japanese!' I tried logic. 'Who else could be the American?'
" 'Look at her. Look at her short hair,' he said, pounding her face in the photo with his scrawny finger. "She could be African. How can anyone tell she is American? Use the picture of the other student,' he ordered.
"Dizzy. I tell you no lie. I felt dizzy...and nauseous. I had just received a heavy blow to my stomach, a slap to the face. My eyes began to sting, as I ran out of the conference room to the ladies room. The tears began to flow just as I slipped into the stall.
"Had this jerk just told me that a black student could not represent America? Had he really just implied that a black woman's hair wasn't representative of the good 'ole US of A? Was he really saying that a picture of a blond-haired blue-eyed boy was more representative, even if he was having a Mexican child polish his shoes?
"Was he telling me that I could not represent my country on any other soil? Was he saying my experience in Denmark was not legit? Was this really coming from a man of my generation, born and raised in the north, just like me?
"Had I spent0 six years of my education integrating an all white private girls' school to confront this kind of bigotry in my first corporate job? Had I spent four years of college at Georgetown, fighting for recognition in a school that had only begun to accept women just a few years earlier, to listen to this man dismiss my experiences, and this young black teenager's experiences, as not being symbolic of America?
"I dried my tears, recovered my composure, reapplied my lipstick, and returned to the conference room ready to reason.
"I casually explained that when I lived in Denmark, I had a boyfriend, Uffe, who was tall, thin, blond, and blue-eyed, and looked very much like the exchange student in question.
" 'This guy could be Danish, for all I know. How would anyone who has traveled to Scandinavia know whether he was Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, or...American? Besides, what sense does it make to have your sneakers shined? Do we really want him depicting American intelligence? This picture could quite possibly work if the young man had been wearing shoes...leather shoes that might have needed polishing. But this? This is a disgrace.
" 'Believe me. I was an exchange student. If we publish this picture in our magazine, it will be an embarrassment to all involved. Better that our readers have to pause to figure out that blacks, in this New Day, can represent America, than to use that condescending photo."
"I used the same argument as Paul and I sat across from the Director of Public Relations later that afternoon. Clearly Paul and I did not see eye to eye, but I prevailed.
"I have never, in 35 years, come that close to losing it in my workplace. Of course, I was young, naive, and on that day overwhelmed by the ignorance of the man to whom I reported. It would not be the last time I would confront racism so blatantly in the workplace. But it was the first time. And the first time always hurts the most.
"That evening, I went to a local bookstore and discovered your recently released book of poems, in a yellow jacket cover, entitled: Still I Rise. It saved my sanity that summer as I mourned the loss of my innocence. Until that summer, I believed that my education and background had prepared me to compete in any arena. Now I knew others may not perceive me as I did.
"I framed this poem over 30 years ago and it has adorned every office I have had the fortune to occupy."
Dear Readers, if you are not familiar with this "anthem," read on, read on. Right on. Right on.
Still I RiseYou may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Thank you, Mother Maya, you saved my mind.
Dear Readers: What are your favorite Maya Angelou quotes or poems? Click on the comment section and let us know.