I had two other pieces written for this month’s blog, but when I read about Maya Angelou’s death I knew I had to write something else. Dr. Angelou, a poet, storyteller, civil rights activist and educator, was a keynote speaker at the 1991 ELCA Youth Gathering in Dallas, Texas. Two years later, in 1993, she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She was both the first African American female cable car conductor and the first African American female to have written a screenplay that was actually filmed.
In an NPR story about her death, film director John Singleton pointed to Angelou’s poem titled “Still I Rise,” saying that it made him feel better about himself as an adolescent living in South Central Los Angeles.
Like New Orleans and Detroit, South Central Los Angeles struggles with high unemployment, poverty and street crime. Like Detroit, their history has been marked by boom times, followed by devastating riots. Like New Orleans (and Detroit, and other cities across our nation) poor rates of literacy and systemic racism contribute to keeping people stuck in the cycle of poverty. Immigration has definitely made a huge impact, changing neighborhoods from primarily African American to a majority Latino. It doesn’t take much for me, a middle-aged white woman, to understand why Maya Angelou’s poem would speak to a young, black man growing up in South Central.
Mr. Singleton considers Angelou an elder storyteller, and her stories, he says “hold a lot of wisdom from walking through the world and experiencing different things.” That phrase describes for me one of the benefits of attending an ELCA Youth Gathering. If we are to be God’s hands and feet in the world, shining the light of Christ, it is important for us to have a diversity of experiences in the world, experiences that open us to the movement of the Holy Spirit and call us to engage our particular gifts in service of God’s vision for creation. “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) If your congregation is still on the fence about sending young people to Detroit, listen to Dr. Angelou’s poem, and understand why we need to stand with the young people of Detroit and invite them to rise up together with us.
Still I Rise
Maya Angelou, 1928
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’ll rise.
Listen to the full poem, read by Dr. Angelou, by clicking here.