Recently, Odyssey Christian Church began a series of stories of Epiphanies, this being the time of the Christian Year to recognize epiphanies… The pastor, Rev. Phillip Ball, shared three stories, one of which was about one of my heroes: Dr. Maya Angelou. To hear a story of her working with a voice coach in and of itself is amazing, because for several years during her childhood, she did not speak at all.
She and her brother lived with “Mama”, her grandmother in Stamps, AR, for many years, but for a time, they were sent to live with their mother in St. Louis, and during that time, one of her uncles raped her. She was around seven years old… The ‘grown-ups’ made her tell what happened, and as a result, other family members killed the uncle. This terrified Maya. She believed her words caused the death of her uncle (because she was seven….), so after that, she began her ’40 Days without food’, but instead, she spent a much longer time without speech.
She was afraid of the power of her words, so she refused to speak. She had a little notebook and pencil she would carry around to write responses to questions down if she was required to communicate, but she just could not let the words pass her lips. She thought they were too powerful…
Until, she was taken under the wing of Mrs. Flowers, the woman who could be considered high class in the African-American community in Stamps, AR, at that time. Maya idolized her! Mrs. Flowers invited Maya to have tea and cookies one afternoon. When they were at her house, Mrs. Flowers loaned Maya a book of poetry. (Everyone knew that while Maya did not speak, she was a voracious reader.) Mrs. Flowers explained that words do have power, but it is up to us to use those words to create goodness.
She explained to Maya, that as humans—the only beings God gave the ability to speak-- we must use our words. She asked Maya to borrow the book of poetry and read it, and then the next time she was to call on Maya, she expected Maya to read one of the poems to her. The concept petrified Maya, but this was Mrs. Flowers. She couldn’t say, “No”! So that was how Maya learned to reestablish her voice, quite literally.
Mrs. Flowers, the highest-class woman of the African-American society in Stamps, AR, took Maya under her wing and taught her how to fly. She taught Maya the importance of her voice and the spoken word. She gave Maya the courage to speak again, after several years of not speaking, thinking that her voice was powerful enough that it could only cause pain and tragedy. Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Flowers meant to be so, she can be described as a teen mentor.
Maya’s story about her can be found in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. God Bless Mrs. Flowers. Without her, we would not have this Phenomenal Woman who speaks to sold-out crowds, who wrote and orated a poem for the Inauguration for the President of the United States of America, who has earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize…. She has won THREE GRAMMY Awards for SPOKEN ALBUMS! This from the little girl who refused to speak for so many years because of the traumatic situation she endured when she was seven years old…. Maya is a miracle!!!
So, I loved hearing that she had a speaking coach and that he asked her to repeat the sentence, “God loves me!” Mrs. Flowers has to be given some credit in mentoring Maya into speaking again and leading her into this amazing, life-altering, continuous performance that has made her a hero and a legend.