When I was a kid, I was known to disappear inside my closet and burrow underneath my blankie with a book in hand. I just wanted to get lost in the worlds that books created. There was the time when, embarrassingly, I read cheesy Harlequin novels. And then I couldn’t get enough of the sexy, dangerous world of Jackie Collins’ Lucky Santangelo. But nothing compared to the most influential phase of reading black literature, which coincided with my own struggles with identity.
To be a black girl in America at any time is to constantly be under attack. That’s the unvarnished truth. When you grow up in a world where you are not valued, it’s confusing. You can’t help wondering what you’ve done to inspire such hatred. For me, there was the added complication of being accused of “acting white” because of the way I spoke and how I carried myself. I felt like an outcast. When I read those books with characters who looked like me and had their own unique, complicated journey, I felt less alone.
It was during this phase that I discovered Maya Angelou. There was a confidence in all of her work that forces readers to absorb her words as the portraits she painted came to life. I felt the rhythm in her words as they flowed like a precious melody. There was no one else like her. When I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a seed was planted.
If I worked hard enough, I too could grow to use language beautifully.
So I practiced. Instead of doodling, I scribbled poetry and random sentences in the margins of my notebooks. I wanted to believe writing could be more than an occasional hobby, but I could see no entrance to making that elusive dream a reality. That is, until the universe intervened.
Through a series of fortuitous events, my mother and I were invited to attend a small business dinner where Dr. Angelou was the keynote speaker. Although I was excited to breathe the same air as one of my idols, I was terrified of being around strangers.
We stuck out as two faces of color in a sea of white. There was mindless small talk, bland food, bottomless wine, and forced laughter. We listened to all the obligatory speeches and shameless back-patting.
Time stood still when Dr. Angelou entered the room.
She infused life into a room full of dullness. We all rose as one and applauded, some more enthusiastically than others. Everyone else melted away. I was in the same room as this inspirational speaker and great master of words! When she began her speech, she commanded the room with authority and wisdom. I was in awe.
“If I had not been born a black woman, I would have thought I had done something very, very wrong.” — Maya Angelou
It struck me how brave it was to speak those words in that environment; to be unapologetically who she was. It wasn’t until years later that I would fully understand them. You see, I did not understand Dr. Angelou’s words because I had yet to see the ways in which I had been manipulated and broken down.
As much as I had been built up by incredible women surrounding me, I felt like I could never reach their heights. So when they told me I was beautiful or smart or could be anything I wanted, all I saw were limitations.
“You’re pretty for a black girl.”
“You act white.”
“Black people don’t do/like...”
“Black people can’t...”
To understand the power of her words is to step into the shoes of a girl searching for beautiful brown women on the covers of mainstream magazines and those of substance who look like her on TV. To understand their power is to recognize the damage caused when society breaks you down early by disparaging your features. It is to understand the demonization of an entire race by perpetuating false stereotypes while enduring lifetimes of being told you’re not good enough.
Over time, I started noticing that the stereotypes were disconnected from what I knew. I was able to gradually distance and deprogram myself from society’s lies. I found my truth and broke free. I stopped giving a damn about how I looked through the lens of respectability.
I look back on that night fondly, but with one regret. At the end of the evening, my mom and I were walking through the lobby where we ran into a friendly black woman. She told us Dr. Angelou was in the hotel’s restaurant and she’d spoken to her. She suggested we do the same but I was too afraid.
I wonder now what would have come of that conversation and what other pearls of wisdom she would have shared. Despite a missed opportunity, I was left with that profound statement that I now wholeheartedly believe.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
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Torri R. Oats, a Harlem based writer, has written, directed and produced two off-off Broadway plays. She has also contributed to Madame Noire, The Atlanta Post and HelloGiggles. Currently, she is working on her first feature film, No Lies Told Then. Follow her on her website noliestoldthen.com and on Twitter @TorriOates.