Who Maya Angelou was to Me

Way back in the summer of 1997, I had just graduated from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Cultural Studies and French. I had a summer job at Duke University Press where I xeroxed manuscripts submitted to academic journals and worked with a witty and funny handful of editors whom I considered very cool grown ups in a refurbished tobacco warehouse. I had a travel scholarship (the Frances L. Phillips Travel Scholarship) to travel to West Africa that summer, but I had asked for an extension because my dad had died one year prior and my mom couldn’t handle me traipsing around another continent so far out of reach quite yet.

In my post-graduation depression, I started to see holes in my undergraduate education. More specifically, I saw one LARGE hole. I had graduated from college without having read a single work of literature written by an African American woman.

I was appalled.

How did this happen? Was it my fault? Was it the fault of my university? Maybe this is when I had my first critical thoughts on the construction of curriculum that eventually led me to get my Doctorate of Education with a focus on Curriculum & Teaching, but I was ashamed and embarrassed and felt so stereotypically White and Southern all at the same time.

So I started to read.

The first book I picked up for this self-imposed summer of reading was All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou. I selected this book because I loved the title and because the back cover said it was about her move to Ghana, a West African country that was on my travel agenda.

Yesterday, with news of Maya Angelou’s passing, I reached for this book on my shelf. I love these old books of mine and the notes inside them that tell of another version of me. On the title page is the name Marcus, my boyfriend’s roommate, and a dash where a phone number should be but isn’t. The weekend number for Student Health, a person named Casio and a phone number, and a doodled squiggly line under the book title are accompanied by colored-in letters that read, “52 long years”–I have no memory on what any of those notes mean.

I dug through the book to see what passages I had underlined, and one stood out:

“Be careful, sweet lady. You went to Africa to get something, but remember you did not go empty handed.”

I wonder why I so desperately wanted to go to West Africa in my early 20’s. I had spent years at college studying history, issues, and theories of race. I had always had a keen eye for and a curious and critical sense of the race relations around me. I had studied Africa, midwifery, and cultural anthropology. I believe, like Maya Angelou, I wanted to go to the Motherland of my American South, to see the geographic region from where the ancestors of those around me were stolen with a hope to better understand the entire horrible sequence of events in order to forge a better future. Maybe I believed that if I went to the source I would find some clarity. I thought I would learn about Africa and Africans, but, as always with travel, I learned more about myself.

I went to West Africa the following summer. In 1998 I went to Ghana with a group of middle and high school students from what is now called the Durham School of the Arts as their documentary photography teacher. After the students left, I traveled alone for 6 weeks throughout Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.

I did not come back the same person.

I expected to go to West Africa as a White American Southerner and be blamed for slavery, to be shunned by Africans, to be stereotyped, to be treated coldly–at least once during my travels–because of who I was and what I represented. I considered lying and saying I was Canadian, but that was not necessary. All I experienced was friendliness, kindness, incredible good humor, and generosity from the Africans I encountered (minus that military guy at the border who made me bribe him to get back into Ghana, but that’s another story for another time). This blew my mind. At the Cape Coast Castle, a slave castle off the coast of Ghana that is now a museum, I expected to find chilling historical detail of how Americans were complicit in slavery by their purchase of stolen Africans, but instead I found this and I was humbled:


I cried in the woman’s chamber, a small dank room closest to the castle’s door of no return that led to the Atlantic Ocean. I thought of the mothers and daughters and girls who had been held in that space. I felt them. I collected rocks off the ground that I still have in a jam jar on my bookshelf to remind me of that space and those women. It was the first time I felt a collective sense of being a woman–that those women were me, and I was them, and regardless of the fact that I am White and they were African and we lived centuries apart that we had something in common.

I went to West Africa with a group that was half African American. I expected the Black students and the two Black adult chaperones (a guidance counselor and her husband) to land in Africa and be indistinguishable from the Africans–I thought they would blend in and that the White and Asian people in our group would stand out. Oh, no. Not at all.

The African Americans in our group did not blend in. Besides their obvious American dress and American accents when speaking English, their skin tones were remarkably lighter than the Africans. In fact, I did not see single African person during my two months of travel that looked at all like the Black people I had grown up with in the American South. I was confused by this, so I asked the history teacher leading our trip who gently explained to me that this lightening was through decades of rape, of female slaves raped by White masters who then bore biracial babies into slavery who then married another slave and had a baby girl born into slavery who was then was raped by her master and she bore another more mixed baby. . .and the cycle continued for generations. My heart hurt as I began to understand. After my prior summer reading Maya Angelou followed by Toni Morrison followed by Alice Walker followed by Zora Neale Hurston I knew these stories of rape through literature, but understanding it was something else. The weight of history was heavy upon me.

After the students and my group went back to the United States, I began to travel with my trustworthy backpack. It was mid-June and I started in Accra, Ghana and made my way across the southern coast into Cote d’Ivoire, went along the coast of Cote d’Ivoire and up the center of the state into Burkina Faso. This took about three weeks. During those three weeks, I didn’t see a single white person. Not one.

As a White woman in America, I had never experienced being a racial minority. I had not experienced people staring at me when I walked into a space because of my skin color. I hadn’t experienced people (especially children) wanting to touch my sunburned red skin, my freckles, my greasy hair, to get way too close to look at my hazel/green eyes; my entire physical body was a source of curious observation and discussion wherever I went. I had never been the only White person at a restaurant, at a hotel, or in a store. Once I got to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, I met two white graduate students from Stanford and traveled with them a bit. And once I returned to Accra, the European college tourists were at the beach and I played cards with them, drank Star beer, and poured over our Lonely Planet guidebooks together trading stories. But those three weeks forever changed how I see the world.

Yesterday during my commute I read parts of All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and recalled my experiences in West Africa. I  realized that Maya Angelou, the first African American female author I ever read served my tour guide long before I set foot on African soil. How lucky we are as her readers to have her words with us–to accompany our lived experiences–to go back to again and again–even now that she’s gone.

“Vita brevis, ars longa.” –Hippocrates