And Still I Rise

Karen Wikander

I was 22 the first time I heard Maya Angelou speak.

I had never read her books or poetry. This was pre-YouTube and Google so I had never searched for her online. Her name was familiar, but in the limited experience my 22 years on this Earth had afforded me, her significance had escaped me. In retrospect, given that I was an English major, this dearth of knowledge is disappointing. (I am chastising my younger self)

A friend of mine – one with more wisdom than I clearly had – recognized an incredible opportunity when Dr. Angelou came to Reno to speak at the University and had secured us tickets. I went because, why not? I had already been accepted into graduate school in England and was floating through those last few months of Uni, eager to participate in things before I jumped across the pond. 

Not only was this the first time I heard Dr. Angelou speak, it was also the first time I had ever listened to an author read and lecture. I knew that authors did this, but I associated that kind of culture with Berkeley, San Francisco, or New York. I didn’t think it was an experience for people in a state like Nevada. In my defense, I grew up in Incline Village. And while now it is a hub of literary activities, at the time it was a town small enough that the only place to buy books was at the local Hallmark – where I was once told that Ernest Hemingway never wrote a book called The Sun Also Rises, but that’s a story for a different day. So while I was obsessed with literature, letting it consume (almost) every moment of thought, I found it a solitary companion.

Lawlor was filled that day – excitement palpable in conversations and body language. I eavesdropped on people choosing their favorite poems, or synthesizing an influential moment from Angelou’s life. So much joy in that arena before the event even started. Everyone was giddy. This was not reading in isolation – this seemed the equivalent of literary church, with the audience anticipating a rock star apostle.

When Dr. Angelou walked out, settled herself, and began speaking, my whole world changed. That mellifluous voice – you’ve heard it – you know what I’m talking about – it was unexpected, glorious, heavenly and tangible at the same time. I was intoxicated. I cannot say with complete accuracy, but I’m fairly certain I sat gobsmacked, mouth agape, my body floating through her entire lecture/reading. Since that time I have attended many lectures, many readings, and had the good fortune to meet some of my favorite authors, but none have brought with them the experience and the potency, the gravitas and the gaiety, that Dr. Angelou carried with her onto that stage.

I had always known what power the written word could have on a reader. My life has been shaped by the books that I’ve read – characters in novels often mean more to me than the people in my life – I want Elizabeth Bennett to be my boon companion so we can discuss family dynamics and Pemberley. If books weren’t powerful, people wouldn’t spend so much time trying to ban, censor, and burn them. But in this moment, listening to Dr. Angelou, I realized just how much puissance the right author, with the right voice, and the right words could have with an audience willing to engage and listen. She invited me into her world. She painted portraits about the selfishness and brutality we insist on inflicting upon our fellow man. She made me despair, and then drew me back into a universe where she found light, hope, potential, and endurance. Her words wouldn’t allow for apathy or cowardice – confront the hard truths – make the right choices. We have a responsibility to care, to comfort, to protect, to help. The world is a hard place, but Angelou’s voice – a voice made only more powerful for the six years in which she gave it up – asks us to make change – even the smallest moment of compassion and tolerance can make a difference. 

As President Obama said earlier today, Dr. Angelou was “one of the brightest lights of our time.” While we can’t help but mourn the passing of that light, we need to remember her lessons and continue her work. We are blessed to have her voice documented and preserved, reminding us to share the very best part of ourselves.  

I’ve already posted this video on our Facebook page, but I’m going to embed it here. There are many eloquent readings to choose from – and I was sorely tempted to embed one of her Sesame Street appearances (because of the awesome) – but I’ve found the world a very exhausting place as of late, and this reading embodies the hope and endurance that Dr. Angelou offered us all.