On the day of her transition, various social media outlets were flooded with the news that we lost another icon, Dr. Maya Angelou. I don’t use the term icon loosely, as it tends to be customary by today’s standards to label people for minimal contributions to society, let alone the globe. For Dr. Maya Angelou, she not only influenced American culture through literature, civil rights and social activism, but her influence spanned several continents.
Her notoriety and published works influenced generations of future poets and activists. It empowered not only women to be “phenomenal”, but for men like myself to appreciate the arts in a manner that was not common in my humble, urban upbringing in Brooklyn, New York.
Growing up in poverty, my only outlet was reading, and for me, it had to be something worth reading to escape the toils of inner city life ravaged with drugs, violence, and societal degradation. This was before there was a 100 plus television channels, or video games that replaced reading books or poems. This was before text messaging or Twitter or can one imagine Facebook.
She was the unofficial godmother or matron to many of the earlier writers I read like Donald Goines, Eldrige Cleaver, Piri Thomas and many others who spoke freely about the struggles of oppression, poverty and racial animosity towards the African American and Latino communities nationwide. Piri Thomas (Down by These Mean Streets), was one author who really impacted my earlier youth and reached out to him in college.
We only spoke that one instance, but it was one of the most profound few hours I spent with someone that really helped guide my earlier life. His influence; similar to Dr. Angelou, was incredibly instrumental in my personal, intellectual and spiritual growth. Quite frankly, it was the catalyst to my interest in social work.
Her level of activism was critical during an earlier period in our history where being vocal was shunned and often viewed negatively. Fortunately, such ignorance did not deter her passion for empowerment and justice. She embraced her difficult earlier life experiences and conveyed them in a manner that let the world know that she did understand but still overcame.
As social workers, that should be our mantra. Meeting our clients where they are and using our own experiences constructively to uplift their current struggles, always remembering not to impose our own goals, but showing that empathy is vital in assisting clients. So in honor of a legend, I leave you with this…..
My Ode to Dr. Maya Angelou
How can one convey, lyrically that is, a person’s worth, or impact on the world like Dr. Maya Angelou; I struggle with the words, as to pay homage and respect to a “phenomenal” woman like you. You made words strong and powerful to uplift the masses; Your words impacted me to pursue academics and not to allow my destiny to be predetermined by classes. You taught the world “to rise” no matter whom the foe. You empowered so many to seek higher justice for all and eliminate the perceived status quo. I am forever grateful to your words, your stature, and your essence. Some years ago I had the pleasure to be in your presence. I will continue to fight the fight, empower the little person to stand tall; For I will not rest until there is justice for all. My ode to you, though can never equate to your skillful and eloquent flow; I am grateful for your contributions and gain comfort that your words will surpass generations; that much I know….
Jack S. Monell, PhD, MSW is a Forensic Social Worker and Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of "Delinquency, Pop Culture and Generation Why" “Delinquency, Pop Culture and Generation Why”.