It was March, 2006. There were seven of us, all activists piled into one small apartment in midtown New York. We had found ourselves in the midst of a maelstrom surrounding the cancellation of the planned New York premiere of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” One thing was clear to us: Rachel’s words must not be silenced.
And so we got to work planning an event to be held at the historic Riverside Church in which Rachel’s writings from Gaza, where she was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home, would be the center piece.
The organizing was intense and all-consuming–we had only 3 weeks to pull off a massive undertaking. And we somehow had to find a way to make contact with those we wanted to participate to read Rachel’s writings, and to comment on her legacy.
One of the activists, particularly well-connected, asked us who would be on our “dream list” of participants. And she was able to help us contact many of the incredible human beings who took part: Eve Ensler, Patti Smith, Amy Goodman, Howard Zinn, Alice Walker, Kathleen Chalfant, Anthony Arnove, Suheir Hammad, Maysoon Zayid, Lelia Buck, Malachy McCourt, and many more.
Top on our “dream list,” however, was Maya Angelou. And we really thought we were dreaming.
To our astonishment, the activist (Felice) had a friend (Dinky) whose mother had been best friends with Dr. Angelou. A few phone calls later, Dr. Angelou agreed to participate. Her videographer filmed her as she read a passage of Rachel’s writings that we sent her: a section from “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” that links Rachel’s leaving her home in Olympia, WA to travel to the Gaza Strip where she would be participating in nonviolent direct action resistance to Israeli occupation.
Dr. Angelou’s reading of Rachel’s words was powerful and poignant. But I was moved for reasons beyond that. I was moved that Dr. Angelou recognized the importance of Rachel’s writings, and of why we were insisting that Rachel’s voice not be silenced. I was moved that, in participating in the ‘Rachel’s Words’ event, Dr. Angelou was making her own stand to honor not only Rachel, but the dignity and humanity of the families in Gaza that Rachel was there to protect.
I was similary moved by a generous act of Dr. Angelou’s on July 22, 2014. The book I had written with and about the family of innocent death row prisoner Troy Davis (called I Am Troy Davis) had gone to press that day. I was already humbled by the endorsements for the book we had received, by thinkers/writers/activists I greatly admire, including Dr. Cornel West, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Amy Goodman, Liliana Segura, Laura Moye, Ben Jealous.
It’s always nerve-wracking the day your book “goes to press,” which is when no more changes can be made.
Especially so when, the morning the book goes to press, you receive an email from Dr. Angelou’s assistant with her endorsement attached.
I forwarded the email to my publishers before even opening the attachment to read the blurb; the one and only time I wrote an email with the subject: HOLD THE PRESSES! (and meant it, quite literally.)
Only after receiving confirmation that the presses could, indeed, be held to accomodate Dr. Angelou’s quote, did I take a moment to read what she had written about my book.
“Here is a shout for human rights and for the abolition of the death penalty. This book, I Am Troy Davis, should be read and cherished. It will inspire courage in the heart of those who are willing to use their efforts to save lives and increase the quality of life for all people.”
Once again, I was beyond moved: not just because of her beautiful response to the book, (I mean, she did say the book must be read and cherished!!) but also, and especially, because she was acting on her understanding of the significance of Troy’s story, just as she had acted on her understanding of the significance of Rachel’s words.
There are other, more indirect, blessings I have received from Maya Angelou. Her participation in Rachel’s Words led to my close friendship with Dinky (the daughter of Dr. Angelou’s best friend) which, in turn, led to my 8-year-and-counting involvement with the inspirational Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine, and to relationships that I will forever treasure, both in Palestine and New York.
Not to mention the blessings we have all received from Maya Angelou through her poetry, her memoirs, her activism, her having consistently spoken or written that which must be said, and having done so in a way that is so infused with grace that it forced all of us to pay attention, even (and especially) when it was painful to do so, even (and especially) when we would prefer to look away.
Underlying all of Maya Angelou’s life, her body of work, is her fierce love for the dignity and humanity of every person we share this planet with, and an equally fierce insistence that this dignity and humanity be acknowledged by us all.
If my work, in any small way, contributes to that same struggle in which Dr. Angelou was a giant, the struggle against oppression, injustice and marginalization, and the struggle for equal dignity and humanity–then that will have been the greatest blessing of them all.
Your life, Dr. Angelou, should be learned from, and cherished.