The Afterlife We Call Legacy

I wondered why Bill Clinton’s and Michelle Obama’s tribute to Maya Angelou sounded so familiar. The eulogies were beautiful and compelling, but it felt like I was hearing the speakers replay a long conversation I’d just had with them on color, courage, and identity. It hit me. They were talking like contributors to my Race Around the World. I grinned thinking Yeah, Michelle would’ve written for the Race. Anyone have access to her for my next series? I felt awe seeing the ripples of Maya’s influence upon people who would become pillars of the most powerful nation in the world. When Maya was a little girl she was afraid her voice had killed a man after the rapist she’d named was found dead. She quit talking for six years. Maya didn’t know she would find it again, a voice that would bring life and healing to those who listened.

Here’s Bill: I first encountered Maya Angelou as a young man when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It was written in 1970 about the time I started law school, and shortly after it came out, I read it and I was the one who was struck dumb. She called our attention to things that really matter — dignity, work, love and kindness — things we can all share and don’t cost anything. And they matter more than the differences of wealth and power, of strength and beauty, of intellect. All that is nice if you put it to the right use, but nothing is more powerful than giving honor to the things we share.

I got chills hearing Michelle. I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy, they were powerful and sexual and boastful..but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty. And oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message. As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie. That was the standard for perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head. Her message was very simple. She told us that our worth has nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead, she said each of us comes from the Creator, trailing wisps of glory.

Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey, through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers, through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls, through long years on the campaign trail where, at times, my very womanhood was dissected and questioned…Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House. She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.

As a kid, I kept to peers who were bicultural and shied from those more Asian than I out of a sense of superiority. Not thinking that I myself was above those who were more traditionally Asian but because I had bought into the myth that white culture was superior. The blonde on TV was cooler than my parents. I’m obviously over that. I wish I were the measure of my mother.

When Oprah took her turn to speak at the memorial service, I saw more clearly than ever the power and need of role models for all children. Being able to see ourself in the mirror of a hero gives us hope to dream bigger than our circumstances. I marvel at God. I am just in awe that I, a little colored then Negro girl, growing up in Mississippi, having read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for the first time, read a story about someone who was like me. I was that girl who loved to read. I was that girl who was raised by my southern grandmother. I was that girl who was raped at nine.

I remember when I opened my school in South Africa and I said to her, oh Maya, this is going to be my greatest legacy. And she said, not so fast. Your legacy is every woman who ever watched your show and decided to go back to school. Your legacy is every man who decided to forgive his father…Your legacy is every person you ever touched. Your legacy is how you lived and what you did and what you said every day. So true, sister Maya. I want to live your legacy…Each of us who knew her, those only touched by her words or those who were able to be blessed to sit at the kitchen table, we are next in line to be a Maya Angelou to someone else. It’s a challenge that I embrace with my whole heart.

I caught philosopher Stephen Cave on radio last month when he maintained that all fears, like those of flying or driving, really come down to the fear of death. He said we can’t imagine not being. In the post What If You Weren’t Afraid?, readers brought up the matter of healthy fears, what some consider necessary survival mechanisms. We’d better be afraid of anything twice our size wielding a weapon – fangs or knife. I’m no evolutionist but oh yes, we do want to live and keep living. I believe our wish to leave a worthy legacy is the desire to live on beyond death. Our afterlife.