Like many people, this past weekend I watched the televised memorial service for Dr. Maya Angelou. I am a great fan of the work of Dr. Angelou and I admire the way in which she touched people and change lives with words. I also admire the profound way in which she changed her own life. In addition to being a revered writer, activist and entertainer, Dr. Angelou was also at one time a sex worker. She told that truth along with many other truths to let people know what the fullness of being a woman, particularly a woman of color, really is.
It was that fullness of black womanhood, the way Dr. Angelou told it, that clearly spoke to First Lady Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama’s tribute to Dr. Angelou has been shared widely across social media in the last few days. Her words were eloquent and moving. They were themselves a powerful tribute to the powerful words of Dr. Angelou. She spoke in a very heartfelt way about the ways in which Dr. Angelou’s words allows her to recognize her own strength, beauty and ability to persevere as a black woman. In part, she attributed her ascendancy to the White House from the south side of Chicago to the legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou. And she spoke about the ways Dr. Angelou’s words touched a white woman in Kansas so deeply that the woman named her daughter Maya and raised her son to become the first black president of the United States.
I think it’s important that all women of color in this day and age look to women like Michelle Obama and Dr. Maya Angelou as examples of what is extraordinary, and still, possible. Both of these women came from a history that would not suggest the level of success that they would ultimately be able to reach. Too many young girls of color limit their expectations for their future based on what they see in the present. They may not know too many women, if they know any at all, who are of color and are living full and successful lives as adults. I can imagine how many young girls have the creativity and imagination to dream big dreams for themselves for the future. But they lack the resources and support and the ability to keep the dream alive as they grow older. So those dreams wither and die. Which is sad because the big dreams are possible.
Clearly not everyone will have the type of success and reach the level of achievement that Michelle Obama and Dr. Maya Angelou were privileged enough to experience. But how many little girls could go on to become lawyers or teachers or veterinarians with proper guidance? Or, at the very least, with some encouragement that those dreams and hopes are possible. It is very easy to talk yourself out of trying if you don’t see any real life examples of anyone like you trying and actually succeeding.
Dr. Angelou was known for saying that “when you know better you do better”. And each of us who is reading this and knows better should hold ourselves accountable to share some encouragement and guidance with another young woman of color who could benefit from that type of support. Because a tremendous amount of potential goes untapped in communities of color that may be lacking sound educational foundations and proper resources for young people. So because they don’t know, they can’t do.
So I challenge you to not only dream big yourself, but to be mindful of encouraging the big dreams of those around you. And let’s let that serve as our own individual tributes to Maya Angelou.