Many, many years ago, while living in London, I had the great fortune to go see Maya Angelou live. My memory of the particulars is sketchy. I think it was a smallish room, perhaps a community hall, with a stage. The audience numbered hundreds rather than the thousands I’d imagined a legend like herself would draw. Whether that was because tickets were limited and we were damn lucky or because the wider world didn’t know she was there or think of her as someone to go see, I’m not sure.
I’m a fan. I read and quote her work and always learn something from her poetry. I worked with a gal in Los Angeles once who was so obsessed with her that she was planning to move to Winston-Salem on the off-chance of running into her idol at the grocery store.
Born in 1928, Marguerite Ann Johnson’s life began badly. She was raped and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 8. He was caught, jailed for one day, released and murdered four days later. Maya stopped talking.
I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…
It wasn’t until she was 14 that her teacher, Ms Bertha Flowers, helped her talk again. Of many firsts in her life, her first first was probably to become San Francisco’s first Black female cable car conductor. Her son Clyde (Guy) was born when Maya was just 16, a single mom, working as a waitress to keep them together. In 1952, when she began her singing career, she took the name Maya Angelou. Her interest in music and literature blossomed as did her activism in the Civil Rights Movement. She toured Europe with Porgy and Bess and began what would become a habit – to learn the language of the countries she visited. In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr asked her to be the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The following year, she met Vusumzi Make, an activist from South Africa and all three move to Cairo, Egypt where she edited an English language weekly The Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana before return to the USA in 1964.
Somewhere along the way, she met Oprah Winfrey and became her mentor. At Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Maya read her poem On the Pulse of Morning – it would win a Grammy that same year. It was one of many awards she would go on to receive. There is so much about the woman I didn’t know. Her film Georgia, Georgia, filmed in Sweden, was the first screenplay written and released by a black woman. She married Germaine Greer’s ex-husband, Paul du Feu. And she directed the film Down in the Delta, featuring Wesley Snipes. And there’s so much more.
Why she’s in my mind today is that a friend posted a link of Facebook that got me thinking. It was titled How to change your life in one second flat.
According to Maya, there are four questions we subconsciously ask ourselves with almost every interaction we have with others:
- Do you see me?
- Do you care that I’m here?
- Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
- Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?
Katherine Schafler, NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker, explains the theory behind it all far better than I could.
I’m guilty of stumbling on the first one. Do I see you? Did I look at the cashier at the market today? Nope. Do I look at the waiter, the church collector, the postie? Maybe. Sometimes. But more often than not, I’m rushing. I’m not looking. I’m not connecting. I’m not seeing.
And those times when I do stop and look and see, they make a difference. At the World Bank meeting in Dubai many lifetimes ago, a Bangladeshi kid was stationed at our conference bus stop. His job was to be there in case any of the delegates needed to return to their hotels. Each day, in the sweltering heat, we’d chat a while. About him, his family, his life. He told me to try smoking a hookah pipe. And then he asked me which flavour I preferred. On my last day, my last bus ride from the venue, he gave me a present of some apple tobacco. It had cost him a day’s wages. I knew better than to refuse but I did ask him why – and he said: Because you saw me.
I’d forgotten that. I’d forgotten what a game changer it can be if we actually ‘see’ people. This article reminded me of what I’ve been lax about. And for this reminder, I’m truly grateful. And think, that’s only Question 1.