Learning From Maya

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou 1928-2014

“When you learn, teach, when you get, give.” ― Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou passed away peacefully on May 28th. She was a poet, memoirist, performer, educator, activist and mother. In 1982, when she took on a professorship at Wake Forest University, she knew she had come home. To her surprise she discovered she hadn’t become a writer who taught but was now a teacher who wrote. And teach she did. Many of us were introduced to her by Oprah Winfrey. Oprah took joy in sharing the life lessons she learned from her mentor. Today, many of those insights roll off my tongue. Whomever I quote them to invariably thinks I’m brilliant. Of course, I have to confess those wise words didn’t originate with me. I can only accept credit for being smart enough for taking Maya as my own.

We are more alike than we are different” – Maya Angelou

I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was twenty. Maya was an artist who painted with words. It was the first time I had read such an honest, intimate account of sexual abuse and the struggles of being black and a woman. I was not black or sexually abused, but I am a woman and knew how it felt to be treated as “less than.” I had an immediate connection to the author. On the surface we were nothing a alike and yet she somehow knew my heart. I learned that as a young girl Maya sat in the balcony of a movie theater, reserved for blacks, waiting to grow up and become rich, beautiful and white. Thirty years later, I sat in a theater waiting to become that same woman. It never happened for either of us but watching Maya embrace her unsung beauty gave me, a white girl uncomfortable in her own skin, permission to do the same.

“Love builds up the broken wall and straightens the crooked path. Love keeps the stars in the firmament and imposes rhythm on the ocean tides. Each of us is created of it and I suspect each of us was created for it.” – Maya Angelou

As an adult, Maya boldly never edited who she was. I admired that but didn’t think it was possible for me to be that way until I read an interview with her in O Magazine.  In it Oprah asked her where her confidence came from. I was expecting Dr. Angelou to say it came from being raised by her stable and loving grandmother.  But no, she explained that it sprang from love. She didn’t mean love in a sentimental or romantic sense. What she was talking about was much bigger than that. She was referring to a state of being so large that it’s unconceivable. Knowing of all the strikes that had been against her, assured me that that kind of love is available to everyone. If bidden and allowed, it will hold anyone’s head high and move through them to fulfill their life’s purpose.

“If you have a song to sing, who are you not to open your mouth and sing to the world?” – Maya Angelou

I’m grateful Dr. Angelou had the presence of mind to document her life in books and interviews for all of humankind. Even in death, she will continue to teach. I smile when I think of how God brings greatness out of the most unlikely people. Thanks to Maya’s heeding the call, a six-foot-tall, black woman is no longer considered an unlikely candidate for anything. The concept for the above portrait came to me when I realized the word “angel” is in Dr. Angelou’s last name. I dressed her in the garb I imagined her ancestors wore and placed stargazer lilies in her arms. They’re fitting flowers for her to hold because they mean one who is “high-souled” or spiritually evolved. I find hope in knowing that she didn’t start out that way. From a turbulent childhood, she grew into a seeker of truth and then lived what she learned. She followed the yearnings of her soul and became part of a movement that raised our country’s awareness of social injustice. She was an earth-shaker and a mountain-mover. She left none of her gifts unused. And for that, dear Maya, we thank you.

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Stargazer Lily

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Sojourner’s Truth

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“Every time God’s children have thrown away fear in the pursuit of honesty, trying to communicate, understood or not – miracles have happened.” – Duke Ellington

Whenever I think about the life of Sojourner Truth I’m inspired and amazed. She was a steadfast woman who spoke what was in her heart, no matter what. She knew she was disadvantaged but also knew she had a power greater than herself at her fingertips. She trusted in that power and accessed it to help spread a message that was the beginning of turning our country (as she would say) right side up.

In 1797, she was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in Ulster county, New York. She grew up working from dawn until dusk for her master. She slept on a cellar floor and at age 9 was sold with a flock of sheep for $100.00. She suffered all the indignities of being owned by someone until one day in 1827, she walked out the door never to return.

When Isabella was 46, she felt a calling to spread God’s truth so strongly she couldn’t resist. To do this she would have to travel across the land, so she thought it fitting to change her name to Sojourner. While in bondage, she had been sold four different times. With each new master came a new last name. As a free woman, she decided to choose her own. Knowing she was God’s child, she took on the name Truth. And thus began Sojourner Truth’s public life.

She began preaching to predominantly white audiences on the evils of slavery. She would not, could not be hushed. She spoke with authority when sharing the humiliation and abuse slaves endured. She was close to six feet tall and stood erect and dignified. As soon as she grasped that in many ways women were as oppressed as slaves, she became an advocate for women’s rights. She could see that when her people were freed she would then be under the black man’s domination, just as white women were with their husbands.

Although she couldn’t read or write, she had a fine mind and a sharp wit. Sojourner saw her blackness, being female and uneducated not as deficiencies but the perfect traits needed to bring about God’s plan to change the world. Her illiteracy made her memorize scripture and forced her to go within for her answers. She knew she wasn’t capable of writing a speech. Her only hope was to ask her Father in heaven to speak through her. At the beginning of one lecture she confided to her audience, “Children, I come like the rest of you to hear what I have to say.”

In 1851, Sojourner attended a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Where without preparation, she delivered her most famous speech, Ain’t I a Woman? While standing at the podium, she addressed a man in the crowd who had shouted that women shouldn’t have as many rights as men because Christ wasn’t a woman. She answered him, “You say Jesus was a man, so that means God favors men over women. Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.” After she concluded her thoughts, applause filed the room. Sojourner Truth had stopped the naysayers in their tracks. Her words burned like fire. She was a wonder to behold.

Sojourner went on to meet presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. She developed a friendship with fellow human rights activist Harriet Tubman. She tried to vote on two occasions, but was turned away both times. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

When her death was imminent Sojourner said, “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Today that star still hangs in the sky to illuminate the way for women everywhere. At that the end of her Ohio speech, she informed her audience, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” Amen.

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A portrait that Sojourner Truth sold to finance her speaking tours in the 1860s.

Click here to see a moving reenactment of Sojourner Truth’s speech, Ain’t I a Women? by actress Alfre Woodard.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Keep Going: Harriet Tubman’s Legacy

keep-going_edited-1Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”                Harriet Tubman

No one knows if Harriet Tubman really uttered these words, but there isn’t any question that  she lived them. Harriet was born into slavery and raised in a world with no hope. Still, she dreamed her dreams and did what she had to do. She broke the law of the land by following the North Star to freedom. Where did a woman who was whipped as a child get that kind of courage?

Harriet had a deep and abiding faith that she was being guided. She was steadfast in her conviction that all she had to do was keep going and God would take care of the details. She shepherded over 300 slaves to freedom. If any of her fugitive charges became faint-hearted and wanted to turn around, she threatened to shoot them. Turning back could mean death to them all. She gave them no choice but to keep going.

I too have been known to buckle and want to backtrack. Somehow the pain of the mundane seems safer than pioneering into new territory. The only way I’m able to move past that kind of paralyzation is to borrow some of Miss Harriet’s grit. She always remembered to ask for direction and then listen for the answer. The way was always made clear. What stands between me and that kind of guidance? Remembering to ask. harriet-tubman-wanted-poster_edited-1
Harriet’s life has been a beacon to many. In Hillary Clinton’s 2008 speech for the Democratic convention, she shared my admiration.

There are many books written about this remarkable woman’s life. One of my favorites is Courage to Run by my friend, Wendy Lawton.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.  www.sueshanahan.com