Sometimes, when someone dies, you want to wake them up.
I have felt that when loved ones have died, or when certain public figures have passed on.
I felt it this week with the death of Maya Angelou and last week when I learned Vincent Harding had died.
Wake up, please?
I met Maya Angelou years ago, when I was in college. She had come to Occidental College for some special event, (I don’t remember which) and I sat, spellbound. I think it was her voice; it reminded me of what brown velvet looks like, or like molasses being spread over a piece of bread. The words she had written were powerful, true enough, but it was her voice that caught me. After the event, I talked with her and showed her some of my poetry. I remember she told me, “My dear child, you are a writer …and you must always write. Every day…you must write…”
Her spirit was cemented in mine from that moment on,
Her life story, her poetry fascinated me, but her spirit captivated me.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise …
She had risen, surely. I carried that poem in my heart, as sure as I carried the spirit of my own mother in my heart.
And so when she died, something jostled loose within me…and I wanted to ask her, whisper to her, “Wake up. Please, wake up!”
Vincent Harding I only met recently. I had read only one of his books, There is a River, and had only recently learned that he had written Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous sermon, “A Time to Break Silence.” He wrote that most piercing observation in that speech: “There is a time when to be silent is betrayal…” What struck me upon meeting Vincent was his gentleness. He had a quiet voice; it didn’t remind me one bit of velvet or molasses, but his spirit was palpably gentle. He said that he had been loved into living; his spirit supported that claim.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast…it is not proud. It does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs….
I want to ask him, politely, to please wake up. People were not ready for him or Maya to leave, not yet.
These two veteran Civil Rights icons have contributed breath to the lives of so many people. They lived through some of the ugliest episodes of racial cruelty this country has ever experienced, and came through it not only standing, but helping others to get through it and understand it by the words they wrote. They believed in the “beloved community” and worked to spread that good news. As Ruby Sales said, who knew Harding intimately and whom he called “daughter,” Harding and those who worked in the movement brought down an entire (racist system) without ever having fired a single weapon.
They did it with love and with their faithfulness to the gift they both had, that of writing.
It is sad that, now, two of our Civil Rights heroes have “gone home to be with the Lord.” It seems like we who are alive need to talk to those who are yet alive, cherish them, tell their stories, give them homage for what they did for all of us. It seems like we need to at least gather the children, and get those who faced dogs and fire hoses …to come talk…to the children…and tell them the stories before they, too, lay down to rest, their voices never to be heard again.
Do you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops
Weakened by my soulful cries?
You may shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Maya, Vincent …may you please wake up?
You left us far too soon…
A candid observation …