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Apr13

MAYA, ZORA & Me

mayazoraIn 1975 I won the National Scholastic Writing Award. This was followed in rapid succession by a flurry of other awards, most notably the prestigious, Detroit News Writing Award for short stories. And…the scholarship offers came pouring in; Harvard came first, University of Michigan, Northwestern, Brandeis, Smith, USC, Princeton. I went on every visit I could. I didn’t think much of the fact that I didn’t get one offer from a Historically Black College or University, I just celebrated the 19 schools that sought me. The only other persons with double-digit scholarship offers in my high school, were headed off to play basketball or football. I was on my way to a bright future doing what came as natural as breathing. Then something strange happened.
As folks waited for me to write ‘the next great piece’…I was paralyzed, and, I didn’t put pen to paper again for 30 years. Why? I guess I choked. With, “Brown-skinned But Cute”, “Summers at the Big House” and other shorts, the comparisons to Zora and Maya rattled me to my core. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” had ROCKED my world in the exact same way that “Their Eyes Were Watching God” utterly altered my reality and forever changed what a book was capable of doing. This, from someone who was born loving books largely because my dad, this imposing boxing champ, was a great lover of literature– Keats, Emerson, Langston, Twain…you name it, he recited it. And, for as much as I love Shakespeare–Maya and Zora spoke to me in a way that defied explanation.

I was deeply in love by my senior year at Spelman College with a gorgeous–tall glass of water…couldn’t even enjoy it though! I had partied and played so much throughout my extensive (and extended) college career that included stints at University of Michigan, Howard University, USC and ultimately Spelman. All of this flittin’ (Maya and Zora were great flitterers as well), all this roaming, resulted in my having to complete 42 units in order to graduate on time and on my birthday, May 17th 1981. This feat, 42 units in 2 semesters, was, as the registrar informed, “impossible!” Well, they clearly didn’t know me, scratch that…they didn’t know my mother. If it meant escaping her ire, I could get it done. She had just about had it with me, and all my moon-walking away from success! For many years, I was that big wrinkle in her otherwise beautiful and taut skin. I’ve accomplished a lot, but walking across that stage as a Magna Cum Laude graduate remains a shining hour. Given all these factors, my 1980-81 academic year left little time to do anything but study and…perform. It was a challenge to squeeze in anything else, even, that 6’4″ love of my life.

One of my few remaining guilty pleasures was grabbing a fish dinner from my favorite greasy spoon in Atlanta’s “Bottom” and then walking a few paces to my favorite little dusty, dank bookstore and milling about with one of my roommates. This would prove to be a life-changing forage as we found two really old copies of, Zora Neale Hurston’s, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. I had been given the book in high school., .but I had never read it. I read the first page of the book and was hooked…instantly…viscerally.

Maya AngelouMichelle and I didn’t say another word, we were reading while we were walking, but the grace of God we didn’t get run over. We didn’t even look up when the Morehouse guys went driving by, tooting in appreciation (okay maybe I looked once). When we got home, we went to our respective rooms, and all you could hear were subsequent sighs and shouts. My phone rang…I knew I had a date. It was Friday night and I had waited all week to spend some time with my sweetie, but Zora wrecked those plans–in much the same way that Maya had when I had picked up, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS! I couldn’t think of leaving her…and I didn’t. Michelle and I finished the book around the same time. We drank coffee and read through the night. I hadn’t been so transfixed since I sat in my room with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and “I Love Myself When I’m Laughing…”. As I got to the last 20 pages or so, I started to cry inconsolably. I went to Michelle’s door and we just looked at each other…something life altering was happening. We both wondered how we had made it to college without reading this book. It was every bit as great as “Tom Sawyer”, “Little Women”, “David Copperfield”, or any other classic I had read. I read slower…I didn’t want it to end…how would I fill the void?? How??

Sometime in 1976, I abruptly stopped writing. I had already made the decision to stop reading Zora & Maya in ’75, after my short stories began to draw comparisons to them both. I was petrified. I worried that maybe I had become so enmeshed that I could no longer see where I ended and they began. So, I silenced them, not realizing that I was actually silencing myself. I lost my voice. By the time I realized that I had written my short stories before I had even read my beloved Zora and Maya, nearly 30 years had past. And since I didn’t talk about why I had stopped writing…no one could really help me, not, U of M Vice Provost, Dr. John Matlock, who was an early champion of my writing style, nor, Dr. Queenie Loudmon (Aunt Queen), nor, Ms. Schneider, my English teacher at Mumford High School–the person responsible for submitting my writings in the first place. With some success, I devoted myself instead to singing, and acting out all the wonderful writings that already existed and that’s how my love affair with the stage began. It was fueled by a deep and abiding need to bring the words on the page to life. But long before there was even a thought of winning a Tony Award…I had practiced my acceptance speech for the Pulitzer.
When I finally rediscovered my voice…I found myself moved to tears when I revisited the writings of Maya and Zora. I wished I hadn’t wasted so much time, but when I read and re-read, “Dust Tracks…” or “I Love Myself When I’m Laughing” or “…Caged Bird Sings” or “Gather Together…”, I finally GOT IT! I got that God wouldn’t take me before I finished what He put me here to do. So surviving the grim prognosis of one of the deadliest, and most aggressive forms of Breast Cancer – Triple Negative at the Stage III level, the death of my closest friend…my mom, my husband and the subsequent years of depression — my soul does looked back and wondered, “how I got over?” It was more than 10 years before I realized that I was part of some greater continuum. There is some work I’ve been put here to do, and He didn’t let me out of my contract, even though I begged OUT. He would not let me go. And now, I’m so grateful. I have some things to finish. So…I write and I write and I write and I write, and when I’m not writing stories, I’m writing songs…lyrics, WORDS! Ruby Dee calls folks like us, “Wordmongers”. How perfect. It feels like a whole lifetime ago when I sat in that hospital for months on end, rolling…in my wheelchair and, hating everything about my life, wondering, “What had happened to my life?”

I know now that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and maybe one day when my writings are published, someone might stand on mine. I hope so. I have my own opus to complete and I no longer retreat from the greatness of Maya & Zora–I bask in it! I celebrate and rejoice in it! I am sorry that it took me so long to ‘get it’. But, they say, “it takes what it takes” and I am so grateful to wake up everyday “clothed in my right mind” and ‘ret’ for the challenges of the new day in front of me. I dream a dream…I am accepting my Pulitzer…I am accepting my Tony…I am accepting an Oscar… In my darkest hour, these are the dreams that tormented me. How I had tried to shut these visions down, but, not now. Nope. Now, I close my eyes…I let the tears flow. These aren’t sad tears…they’re tears of joy, ‘cause I know, like I know, like I know, that these words–that not too many are interested in–right now, will be revisited. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has run from greatness. However, I don’t know if it is possible to be more committed to running from it! I mastered it! Geez! I worked far harder to avoid my date with destiny, than I did to have it, that’s for sure. So, I’m one of the lucky ones. No…it’s not luck, more like providence…grace, maybe a bit of all three. I’m not sure, but I am sure of this, I’m finally working as hard to bring to fruition the whisperings of that ‘still small voice’, that is actually no longer quiet…it ROARS: HJ GET UP AND BE ABOUT MY BUSINESS! I BROUGHT YOU THROUGH FOR A REASON! Thank you God…thank you for MAYA & ZORA & Me

 

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