Oberlin Blogs

From the Heart to the Pen and Back Again

May 29, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

As an individual who expresses many of her talents through writing and storytelling, I would be remiss to not dedicate this blog post to the homegoing of Dr. Maya Angelou. As a young woman, I cannot fail to acknowledge one of the many indirect influences in my life that helped me understand my own sense of womanhood. Furthermore, as a black person I must pay homage and respect to a legacy that has opened many a door for me and my community. Maya Angelou's spirit is a triumphant one that is far too great for my words, or any collection thereof, to describe, however, in this space I am compelled to at least reflect on it.

On May 28, 2014, Dr. Angelou joined the ancestors after leading a tremendously full life.
Nee Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, "Maya" came from family and was one of the few variations of her name that she presented to the world throughout her careers. Her eighty-six years of life are remarkable--from social activism to literally a plethora of the arts (dance, theater, acting, directing, singing, etc.). Maya Angelou is a true renaissance woman.

A childhood of movement from St. Louis and Arkansas (she sporadically lived with her mother and grandparents), experiences of abuse (Angelou was sexually abused) and growing up in the racist South provided some of her first experiences. To add to that, having a child at the age of seventeen further gave Angelou a dynamic narrative. A little investigation into her life story will reveal that at one point, Ms. Angelou refused to speak. For years in fact. It was only in learning to read and write that she found her voice again.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969)

Since various news sources release of statements on her passing, floods of farewell wishes, final thank yous and reflections on the inspiration of Dr. Maya Angelou's legacy have been abundant. And here is yet another addition to that growing collection. By no means do I intend to recount her numerous accolades or do anything other than thank a light in my life that has influenced one of my most cherished talents, writing. In this very brief space, my role is to take stock of my own journey with the pen in light of her inspiration. More than ever, I find it time to explore how writing has come to give me a voice that traverses both space and time. Though my voice comes from a variety of communities that have been (and still largely are) systematically silenced, I have found conduits of resonance for my thoughts in my writing.

The sun has come.
The mist has gone.
We see in the distance...
our long way home.
I was always yours to have.
You were always mine.
In and Out of Time (2006)

Like many other things in life, my experience with writing has largely been trial and error. I had to sift through different ways of talking about relevant things from my experiences. In my early school years, I spent a decent amount of time trying to mimic other people's writing--from actual penmanship to thematic choices or even attempts to create similar perspectives--I went through it all. Then, I dropped that effort. Once I began to receive more critical thinking assignments, I was able to identify with my own writing and talk about things that mattered to ME. They just so happened to also sound good to other folks who read it. Somewhere along in that process, that metaphorical distance from where I was to where home is became shorter. The mist did clear and the sun came shining in. I found myself on the other side of the path and could move forward knowing that I had a way to preserve my thoughts and life experiences down the road.

"You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide to not be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone else's cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution."

I have been through some things, a lot of which was difficult but I made it through. It took a tremendous amount of prayer, conversation and self-reflection to realize that I do not control as much as I would like to about life in general. And that is okay. It is not on me to make all the decisions. However, the things that I can control is me, myself and I. If I need an attitude change, I can do that; if it is a matter of perspective, I can find someone to push me in newer directions. Ultimately though, I get to choose what will and will not define my future.

In high school, I learned that my method of dealing with change and a lack of control is writing. My words are mine and I can use them to name, to build, to deconstruct or to completely reshape my experiences. There is both great power and pride in that. On paper, in voice, in digital media, in whatever medium I chose my storytelling is POWERFUL. It is my personhood embodied in narrative. That IS my rainbow. My writing is my effort to confront my fears, seek new solutions and encourage myself to try again tomorrow. My stories, my narratives and my truths hopefully are the inspiration for someone else to keep moving as well.

"You only are free when you realize you belong no place--you belong every place--no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great."

During my freshman year, Toni Morrison was a convocation speaker who entertained a bevy of questions from the audience. She is an incredibly wonderful and funny woman who is also incredibly insightful and in tune with what drives her writing. When asked about her writing process she said, "No one tells me what to do when I write. It's a totally free place to me. Wilderness and comfort." I have never come across such a fitting description about what writing has the potential to be. The only other thing that I can add to this statement is that there is a such a terrifying freedom about writing that is so beautiful and untamed that it is infectious. It is something that you feel compelled to share because the experience can really be that unique and wondrous.

The wilderness and comfort of my writing is what drives me to continue doing it not only for myself, but for my communities. In other blog posts, I have mentioned my mellon research really being about writing out my own experiences in newer ways and making sure that the knowledge that I gain goes back to my communities, first and foremost. The processes of my writing are multifaceted; whether it be for personal need, academic obligation or community-based research, I find ways to make engaging with my writing a beautiful necessity. I belong when I do this work and that is its highest reward. With that, there are definitely great challenges at the level of language, context, accessibility and other things but the price of achieving the personal self-satisfaction is well worth the minimal debate of those other elements.

College has really allowed me to find where my pen meets my heart and translate that in lasting ways. I am forming a legacy here on this earth and I see where my being traverses space and time and, though it is probably not as expansive as Dr. Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison or anyone else, I have touched someone somewhere and that one (or however many it is) means the world to me. So to wrap up, I encourage folks to cherish what figures like Maya Angelou mean to you, beyond just the days of their passing. Her life work, words and personhood demonstrate her impact far beyond anything I can ever articulate. She is a light and though she may no longer physically be on this earth, her light is shining brighter than ever and the fire in all that she has touched is fiercely burning as well.

"When her friend Nelson Mandela passed away last year, Maya Angelou wrote that "No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn." Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time--a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman. Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things--an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer. But above all, she was a storyteller--and her greatest stories were true. A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking--but the voice she found help generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves."
Statement by the President of the United States on the Passing of Maya Angelou (2014)

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