I was seventeen and at my best friend’s house for her seventeenth birthday party. Despite being really good friends I couldn’t bring myself to share with her what had happened to me when I was aged seven, such was the shame and guilt I had wrongly heaped upon myself.
But my friend, her name was Jennifer was not only very smart, she was also very intuitive and in the middle of her birthday celebrations she handed me a book and said to me with compassion and conviction, “I think this book will help you.”
I was hooked. Do you know that feeling you get in your tummy when you know you’re onto something but you don’t know exactly what? When turning the page of the book feels exciting, an adventure in print, filled with anticipation and not knowing all wrapped into one. That’s what it was like as I began reading.
Up until that point in my life I had never read a book by a black author, someone who had the same skin colour as me. The fact that Maya was a black woman was in my mind revolutionary, a revelation and at the same time deeply affirming.
In a moment my perception of what was possible for me to achieve and become in my lifetime, changed fundamentally. If Maya was similar to me and could write and be published then maybe so could I. Maya planted the seed.
Reading on I discovered from those very first pages how much we shared in common. Even though we lived thousand of miles apart in different countries and in geographically very different landscapes.
I lived on the edge of London in what my friends at the time called the suburbs and Maya had grown up in the rural South. We shared the experiences of racism also Maya was at the deeper end of living in the segregated South.
Where our lives joined was that we both grew up in the arms of the black church, hers rural, mine in the inner city. Where our lives deeply connected and became the medicine because Maya told the story I so needed to hear was our shared early childhood trauma experiences of sexual abuse and rape.
Reading Maya’s story was medicine for me. Here was a woman, not so different from myself, having the courage to tell her story despite her rapist being found dead after she revealed his name and her not speaking for five years because she believed her voice had the power to kill.
There it was in print for the world to see. She had thrown light on her story, taken it out of the dark and made it visible. There it was in black and white print. Her story could not be erased. It was a powerful early lesson demonstrating how writing about our wounds heals.
By sharing the story of being raped Maya bought my story out of hiding. For so long I had imagined that I was a freak, that I was alone in my suffering and that I could never recover from what had happened to me. Maya’s story offered me the possibility of a new and different ending.
By the time I had gotten to the end of the book I knew I wanted to write. I wanted to write and share my story in the hope that my words would touch the souls and spirits of other young women like myself who were living in a prison of shame, guilt and feelings of worthlessness.
Such was the impact of Maya Angelou’s story and the subsequent volumes of her autobiography and poetry that when my daughter was born in 1988 I named her Aida Maya after my sheroe.
Twenty years later after first reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings I wrote my first book “Soul Purpose”, which was also autobiographical. On page one I dared to write about what had happened to me even though at the time I wasn’t willing or should I say ready to go into the fuller details.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was the catalyst for writing my first book and for me having the courage to reveal what had happened to me. Maya had planted the seed. She awakened the thirst in me. She made me hungry to get to know myself by writing and claim a life as a writer and a story teller.
Years later thanks to the generosity and friendship of Tony Fairweather from the Write Thing literacy agency I got to meet Maya several times when she performed in a regular show she did when in the UK at Lewisham theatre in the heart of South London.
Over the years I’ve met many writers and authors that I’ve admired and have been as equally disappointed by some of the behaviour and attitudes displayed off stage.
But not Maya. She was exactly as she was on stage as she was off. She was open, warm and welcoming. She would not favour one person over another. When she spoke to you she gave you and only you her undivided attention and presence. She would call us by our names in the deep velvet, honey voice that was loved and admired.
At the after show receptions held for her she stayed until the last hand was shaken and the last person spoken with. Such was her presence, her grace and her generosity of spirit.
When she spoke with you it was that same dialect, the same tone and pitch that would have you rocking in your seat as she recited the words of one of her poems,
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still like dust I rise.
I cannot tell you how many boardrooms and corridors of power where the words of that poem vibrated in my head causing me to anchor my feet to the floor and stand my ground and find my voice. It was Maya coming to my rescue, helping a sister out, her voice singing in my ears.
So Maya is no longer with us but she has left behind a rich legacy in her stories, her writing, her poems and the multitude of speeches and talks she gave in her lifetime.
I am deeply thankful for her life and the impact her story had on me as that young seventeen year old. I am thankful to my dear friend Jennifer who had the foresight to reach out to me through Maya’s book.
This life is but a feather in the wind. At some point we all cease being in this form, in this body. But whilst we are here with breath still in our bodies, still able to move our hands and our finger lets remind ourselves how much our lives matter, our stories matter. Writing and telling our stories matters.
When we write the truth on the page it will be medicine for someone, not everyone, but someone somewhere, will be touched. So we have to write. We must write. We must share and tell our stories.
Writing changes lives and lives are changed by writing is my strap line, and Maya Angelou is a testimony to this.
Contributed by Jackee Holder who believes that “every time a woman dies a library of books goes up in flames”.
Jackee is an executive leadership coach and coach trainer working across a range of sectors She loves writing and is the author of “Soul Purpose”, “Be Your Own Best Life Coach” & “49 Ways To Write Yourself Well”. This year she has introduced a six-week online course that shows how journal writing is a restorative practice that will help you become more of who you truly are.