Why the Caged Bird Sings: Some Lessons from Maya Angelou

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 22, 2014

Psalm 102:1-8 ESV; “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou

She was only three years old when her parents divorced.  From that time on she was shuffled from one place to another—Chicago, California, and Arkansas.  As a child of eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  After her uncles murdered the man who had raped her, she became virtually silent until she was twelve, speaking only to her brother.  By the age of 17 she was an unwed mother.  She was a high school dropout.  In the course of her life she would work as a madam in a brothel, a dancer, and as the first female and first Black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.  She would prove to be a self-taught, self-made person, going on to become an actress, poet, director, playwright, composer, singer, college professor, speaker of six languages, recipient of more than 30  honorary college degrees, and author of 36 books (including poetry, advice books, cookbooks, children’s books, and prose).

Her breakthrough as an author was her 1969 debut autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  She achieved worldwide fame when she had the distinction of being only the second poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.  She would receive an Emmy nomination for her acting in the mini-series Roots, a National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya (MY-uh) Angelou (AN-juh-loe), who died on May 28th at the age of 86, may not be remembered as one of the best poets that America has ever produced.  But she certainly will be remembered as one of the most famous Black writers and one of the most influential African Americans of our time.

There is much to be learned from the diverse life that Angelou lived, the speeches she gave, and the writings she left us:

One lesson has to do with the way we relate to others.  Angelou was an activist for equality and tolerance.  In remembering her, Angelou’s son, Guy B. Johnson, noted, “She lived her life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being.  She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”  Angelou contended that parents should instill within their children early on the importance and goodness of diversity.  “While I know myself as a creation of God,” she said, “I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”  One of Angelou’s most-remembered sayings is “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  In her adult life, Angelou demanded respect from others.  But she also demonstrated respect for others in return.

A second lesson has to do with courage.  When asked by a friend what she considered the greatest virtue, she stated it was courage.  It took courage for Angelou to rise from her troubled childhood and caged station in life to step out and become the person she became.  In the first part of her extended autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recounts how as a child it was difficult for her and her brother to understand why their parents divorced and then gave them up to their grandmother to raise them.  As an African American girl growing up in the depression years and a time of extreme segregation, she felt like a caged bird. But even a caged bird can learn to sing.  And that is what Maya did.  But it took extreme courage for her to overcome the harsh and bitter circumstances of her early years to do so.

Courage is one of those emotional staples of life that each and every one of us has to draw on every now and then.  For example, it takes courage for a child, teenager, or adult even, to go to a new school.  One of our grandsons had attended preschool, kindergarten and first grade at a wonderful church-related private school where he had thrived in an affirming, caring atmosphere and the class sizes were small.  But then last year when our kids moved, he had to switch to a big public school with a different atmosphere and where class sizes are much larger, more like twenty-eight.  It takes courage for a child to do that.  And it takes courage for a child to transition from middle school to high school, and from high school to college.  But it also takes courage for an adult to go back to college and make a career shift after years of working or staying at home.

Many are the scenarios in life that call forth courage from within us.  And Maya Angelou can serve as a good example of one who exercised courage in the most adverse circumstances.  In  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she tells of how as a teenager she walked into the employment office in San Francisco, demanding to be considered for the job of streetcar conductor they had advertised.  It took courage for her to do that.  “Courage,” Angelou said, “is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

A third Angelou lesson has to do with paying it forward.  “When you learn, teach.  When you get, give” is one of the most important lessons Oprah Winfrey gained from Angelou.  This is a quote, in fact, from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Angelou said, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

One of the maladies of our time is so many people are only interested in what life and others can give them, and they give no thought to what they can and should give to others in return.  In my years of being a pastor, I have found it to be true in churches as well.  It is tempting to seek out a church where I can get all my likes and needs met, without being willing to give of myself in return.  I suspect that is one reason that so many people are attracted to mega churches where numerous support groups, sporting activities, exercise groups, and so on are offered, where those who attend can pick and choose what appeals to them most without making a commitment to the whole or giving anything back.  But churches or any other organization cannot survive if everyone comes with open hands seeking what they get, without offering anything in return.  “To whom much is given,” Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “much will be required” (Luke 12:48).  Maya realized this.

A fourth lesson we gain from Maya Angelou is there is always hope for a fresh start.  In her now famous poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Angelou included the line, “Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings.”  Certainly, with the many new beginnings that Maya experienced in her life, she proved her words to be true.

In her poem, “Still I Rise,” that served as our second reading today, she concludes by saying,

Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise


Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

And so, courage.  Tolerance.  Grit.  Determination.  Perseverance.  Self-confidence.  Such are some of the personal attributes that molded and helped make Maya Angelou the person she was.  When you think about how a young, Black girl who was shipped across the country to live with her grandmother at the age of three, raped at the age of eight, dropped out of high school and became an unwed mother by the age of 17, worked in a brothel and as an exotic dancer, then rose to become a respected world-renown figure, example, and mentor to many other successful figures of our age like Oprah Winfrey, it is pretty astounding.

Whoever we are, whatever our life circumstances, whether we like poetry or not, we have to admire Maya Angelou and be grateful for the example she left us, the lessons she taught us, and the legacy she leaves behind.  Amen.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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