Beauty of the Butterfly: Letter to Maya Angelou

June 14, 2015

Dear Maya,

How strange it will seem to my hearers and readers that I am writing a letter to one who can never literally receive it. You died just a little over a year ago.

And yet, you seem very much alive to me. Once you said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” But you have always been frank about your changes, across a span of almost 90 years, and I have loved reading about them. So powerful and poignant. How deeply and frequently you’ve moved me to laughter and tears.

I do believe your spirit lives on—I do believe that the death of anyone’s body is best compared to a fatally damaged TV set which can no longer transmit the vital signal anymore, even though the vital signal is still around and in the air. Others in my Beloved Community will see things differently. But one thing we can all agree on is how the influence of your seven autobiographies and books of essays and poetry and plays and movies and TV shows (in addition to everything else!) has been nothing less than part of the world’s endless creation. You’ve set your mark upon us. Your immortality is your influence, and it goes on and on, like starshine.

It has reached straight into my heart, in ways small and large.

Here’s one of the small ways.

In your amazing book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you remember the Rev. Howard Thomas who was the presiding church elder over an area of Arkansas which included the town you grew up in, Stamps. He’d come to Stamps every three months to stay in your home, and when your paternal grandmother (whom you called Momma because you grew up with her) opened the door to him, first thing he’d do was spread his arms and call out for you and your brother Bailey, saying “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” He wanted a hug.

Suffer the little children indeed. You thought he was ugly and fat, and that he “laughed like a hog with the colic.” You thought his arms were awful. You didn’t want a hug. But your Momma made you.

Just like my Baba made me. HIS name was Ivan, and I had no clue what he did or what his purpose was, just that he was a dear friend of the family from way back. He’d always come over when he’d heard that my family had made the long trek from Northern Alberta to spend time in Edmonton to visit. His face was shiny and flabby and his breath smelled like onions and he spoke very haltingly and, strangest of all, his forehead (near the scalp) featured a quarter-sized caved-in part that no one ever mentioned, ever, but it was so obvious something was wrong that I wanted to shout. He’d look at me with his bug eyes and hold out his octopus arms for a hug and I just wanted to run, but Baba made me go to him, sit on his lap, and he would squeeze me and go heh heh heh and I would laugh out of embarrassment and then finally it was over and he’d release me from his tentacles and I booked it out of there, to everyone’s vast amusement.

Adults think children are simpletons, tabula rasa, but Maya, you remind us that it’s completely otherwise. Children have their own thoughts to think, they are already complicated little worlds. And to them, the motives and behaviors of adults can be incomprehensible at times….

But the main point is that you have brought me back to the memory. It feels like something long lost in me has been found, and that feels so good, even if it but a small memory about a particularly weird moment.

On the other hand, you tell stories that find no echo in my own world, and they break my heart wide open….

Many of the stories are about the harshness of Southern life and the experience of blackness as told from the inside, and you were one of the first to ever share like this…

“Another day was over,” you say. “In the soft dark the cotton truck slipped the pickers out and roared out of the yard with a sound like a giant’s fart. The workers stepped around in circles for a few seconds as if they had found themselves unexpectedly in an unfamiliar place. Their minds sagged. In [my Momma’s merchandise store] the men’s faces were the most painful to watch, but I seemed to have no choice. When they tried to smile to carry off their tiredness as if it was nothing, the body [told a different story.] Their shoulders drooped even as they laughed, and when they put their hands on their hips in a show of jauntiness, the palms slipped the thighs as if the pants were waxed. […] The women’s feet had swollen the discarded men’s shoes they wore, and they washed their arms at the well to dislodge dirt and splinters that had accrued to them as part of the day’s pickings. I thought them all hateful to have allowed themselves to be worked like oxen, and even more shameful to try to pretend that things were not as bad as they were.”

You tell this story, and then you tell another. How your Momma, on pain of punishment, had taught you and your brother Bailey to be impeccable in the way you addressed your elders and your betters. Show respect. Don’t bring shame on your parents and your family. But as for what you have called “powhitetrash”: they’d call your Momma by her first name, despite the fact that she owned the very land they lived on! “If there was any justice in the world,” you say in Caged Bird, “God should strike them dumb at once!” But God never did. God just watched, when one time a group of these powhitetrash girls came to your front door and your strong proud Momma was there and they surrounded her with mocking laughter and tongues stuck out and crossed eyes and all your Momma did was hum church hymns, never looked at those girls, just kept humming tunes to Jesus. You were watching it all from inside the house, and you say, “I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles.”

You tell these stories, Maya, that break my heart wide open.

And this one too, which is not so much about Black Southern life as it is about the kind of personal tragedy that could happen to anyone, Black or white, poor or rich.

It happened when you were eight years old. Your biological mother, who had sent you to live with your grandmother, wanted you back. So you went to live with her in St. Louis, but it lasted only a short time because you were raped by your mom’s boyfriend and, when word got out, he was killed. “I thought I had caused his death,” you say, “because I told his name to the family. Out of guilt, I stopped talking to everyone except Bailey. I decided that my voice was so powerful that it could kill people, but it could not harm my brother because we loved each other so much.”

You stayed mute for almost five years.

Maya, Maya.

Several years ago, one of my colleagues (Rev. Wayne Robinson) was lucky enough to have met you at a writer’s conference in Santa Barbara. He says you were a powerful presence. Six feet tall, strong deep voice, a force to be reckoned with. There at the conference, you were sharing some of the same stories I’m bringing up here, stories of abuse, poverty, racism and sexism. When you finished, you opened the floor for questions and my colleague asked, “Ms. Angelou, how did you go through all of that without becoming bitter and angry?” And you answered, “Oh young man, you’ve confused two very different things. I’m still angry—very angry—at the kind of things that happened to me and are still happening to too many others. But my anger is part of the drive I have to change things. But I’m not bitter, for bitterness is corrosive. Bitterness doesn’t motivate you to try to do something to change the wrong. It causes you to sit and stew, and let the bitterness eat away at your soul. I’m not bitter,” you said. “But I’m angry, yes.”

“My mission in life,” you have said, “is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

And then in a poem, you sing,

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya, how did you learn to be phenomenal like this? When the harshness of your life constantly threatened to crush you, what gave you the reach in your arms, the span of your step, the curl of your lips?

Tell me about the changes that made you into a butterfly….

Perhaps we are back to the ancient nature vs. nurture question. How much of your resilience is something you were simply born with, and how much of it came from aspects of your environment… Definitely in Caged Bird you make the Ubuntu principle plain, that “I am because we are.”

Oh, you could have grown so bitter, but here’s something your grandmother would do for you, at least twice a year. She would see a whiner, a complainer come down the hill. And she would call you in to the store. She’d say, “Sister, Sister, come out here.” The man or woman would come into the store, and my grandmother would ask, “How you feel today?” “Ah, Sister Henderson, I tell you I just hate the winter. It makes my face crack and my shins burn.” And Momma’d just say, “Uh-huh,” and then look at you. And as soon as the person would leave, your grandmother would say, “Sister, come here.” You’d stand right in front of her. She’d say, “There are people all over the world who went to sleep last night who did not wake again. Their beds have become their cooling boards, their blankets have become their winding sheets. They would give anything for just five minutes of what she was complaining about.

Maya, you could have grown so bitter. But people like your Momma didn’t want your soul to get lost. You were a phenomenal woman because they were phenomenal for you.

Same goes for your biological mom. Now, you would agree heartily she was a terrible mother for young children. She had abandoned you and your brother—simple as that. But you distinguish between two kinds of parents. “There is the person who can be a great parent of small children,” you say. “They dress the children in these sweet little things with bows in their hair and beads on their shoestrings and nice, lovely little socks. But when those same children get to be 14 or 15, the parents don’t know what to say to them as they grow breasts and testosterone hits the boy.”

That’s exactly when your mother stepped up. When you became a young adult. And she was phenomenal for you then. You tell the story of the time she found out you were pregnant. You were just 17. I can’t imagine a more vulnerable moment, where everything depends on what is said next. And what she said next was, “All right. Run me a bath, please.” In your family, that was really a very nice thing for somebody to ask you to do. And in all your life, she had asked this of you only two or three times. So you ran her a bath and then she invited you in the bathroom. She sat down in the bathtub. She asked you, “Do you love the boy?” You said no. “Does he love you?” You said no. “Well, there’s no point in ruining three lives. We’re going to have us a baby.”

Your mother—who was so bad in your early years—came through with flying colors in your later ones. You have said that throughout her life she liberated you. Liberated you constantly. Respected you, respected what you tried to do, believed in you.

Phenomenal woman.

And so you became phenomenal yourself. Beautiful butterfly. In a life of many high points, perhaps the highest was in 1993 when you recited your poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. And this is part of what you said:

History despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Maya, we need these words now. So much going on to make us bitter. The harshness of life. The racism, the sexism, the poverty, the abuse which still goes on today. But help us face it all with courage. Help us be angry in a way that burns for a better world for all. Clean anger, not dirty with resentment.

Help us to be angry like that.

Lift up our eyes upon
The day breaking for us.
Give birth again
To the dream.

History despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Let our mission in life be yours: not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

For myself, I know I can’t be a phenomenal woman, but let me be a phenomenal man.

“Here on the pulse of this new day,” you write,

You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Good morning to you Maya. Good morning, beautiful butterfly. Good morning, always, always…

Sincerely, and with much love,