#MayaAngelou: Why The Caged Bird Still Sings
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a social change nonprofit dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments. She is also the co-chair of the Commission to Modernize Social Security. A regular guest on radio and television shows, Dr. Rockeymoore has appeared on NPR, CNN, Black Entertainment Television, ABC World News Tonight, Fox News, Al Jazeera and C-SPAN.
I grew up with my mother telling me often that I was named after Dr. Maya Angelou, the great writer and poet laureate who died today at the age of 86. As the story goes, the year was 1970 and my mother was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings while I was in the womb. As she finished the book, she swore to herself that if she had a girl she would name her after Maya Angelou because she wanted her daughter to have the author’s same fiercely independent spirit.
It was both an inspiration and a challenge to be named after such an accomplished woman. To see if I could measure up, I recall trying my hand early at writing poetry and fiction and winning a creative-writing contest in the seventh grade as a result. That win took me to a regional gathering of young writers where I learned about elements of a good story—including voice, perspective, character development, and agency.
Several years later, my mother went to go see Dr. Angelou when she came to visit our city. After her speech, my mother stood in line to meet her, gave her one of my poems, and told her that she had named her daughter after the author. Slightly embarrassed that a great poet had received the underdeveloped meanderings of my adolescent mind, I later asked my mom how Dr. Angelou responded. “She thanked me, returned my hug, and was kind and gracious,” my mom said.
Over the years, I have come to fully appreciate possessing a name that seems to have universal meaning. I have had wonderful conversations with people from Latin America who ask me if I was named after the ancient Mayan civilization, people from Israel who want to know if I knew my name meant “water” in Hebrew, and people from India who tell me that my name means “illusion”, “love”, and/or “money” in Hindu. I always respond with pride that I was named after Dr. Maya Angelou, the great American writer and poet who took the nation and the world by storm with her powerful story of struggle and hope in the Jim Crow South.
As a voracious reader of fiction and of nonfiction alike, I am ashamed to say that I have never read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the book that lead to my naming. I think that I have always secretly believed that since Dr. Angelou came to know why the caged bird sings through the telling of her own story, then I would have to gain that knowledge for myself through the creation of my own unique story. Yet, the weight of feeling as if I had to live up to someone else’s narrative has given way to the reality of the times in which we live.
The struggle for civil and women’s rights that animated so much of Dr. Angelou’s writings is an ongoing battle that I feel a responsibility to continue to fight by writing nonfiction reports, articles, books, and briefs that illuminate the, often intersecting, racial, ethnic, gender, and class disparities that continue to unfairly disadvantage so many women and men of color a full 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
So, just as Dr. Angelou lived her wonderful, glorious, and fiercely independent life on her own terms in service of others, I too am determined to do the same using my voice, perspective, character development, and agency. This is why “the caged bird sings.” And, given today’s announcement of Dr. Maya Angelou’s death, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to honor my namesake, my family, and myself.