Essays, Words

This Little Light {A Tribute to Dr Maya Angelou}

{Originally published on The Good Hearted Woman, May 28, 2014}

In June 2010, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Maya Angelou speak in Portland, and immediately went home and wrote about my experience.  Dr. Angelou passed away today, and so I offer my thoughts here in tribute to this great woman whose words touch so many minds and changed so many lives.

Tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou | The Good Hearted Woman

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the Butterfly Effect – how even the smallest of actions have the potential to have infinite impact around the world, and in ways we cannot fully imagine.

I had the opportunity to consider this idea more fully when I was privileged to hear Dr. Maya Angelou speak in Portland. The truth is, I could listen to that woman read a cereal box and be enthralled, with her rich, full voice and commanding presence. But I when I attend any event, I go in hopes of taking something away that will make me think, or make me want to be a better person, or feed my soul. With Dr Angelou, I received all three. She spoke for about an hour and a half, sharing poetry, wisdom, and laughter – even health advice – and central to all her thoughts was the theme of sharing one’s light.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

Dr. Angelou told us about how she came to be raised in the only “black-owned” store in the small Arkansas town of Stamps – by her grandmother, who she described with a smile as being “an old woman of at least fifty” and her crippled Uncle Willie, a man who taught her to “love learning.”

Uncle Willie taught me my multiplication tables. He stood me right up close in front of a pot-bellied stove – with a fire inside it! – and said, “Do your sixes, Sistuh. Do your nine’s, Sistuh.” Fearful that he might open it up and throw me in if I didn’t say them fast enough, I learned my multiplication tables exquisitely.

It was with the image of her Uncle Willie that Dr. Angelou framed our evening. Willie, she explained, was a man “so embarrassed by being crippled” that he would not leave his small town home to venture even five miles to the county seat. And yet, as she learned later in life, his dedication to education and helping others created a chain-reaction that still has far-reaching impact. It was this dedication that led him to take in another poor child – Charlie Bussey – and give him a job in his store, and teach him to “love learning” and “his multiplication tables.” Many years later, Dr. Angelou met Charles Bussey – then the first African-American mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. He told her, “I am the man I am today because of your Uncle Willie.”

She went on to explain how Mayor Bussey then paid it forward, shining his light for a young white boy who would someday become a member of the Arkansas state legislature. That boy, in turn, lit the way for a future Arkansas congressional representative.

In my opinion, an astonishing footnote to Dr. Angelou’s story of her Uncle Willie is the fact that fate allowed her to meet in person each of the primary links in the chain of impact that her Uncle Willie had forged, so that she might be able to fully appreciate his broad reach.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I am sure that at the end of the evening, everyone in the audience that night left with the same thought: How am I affecting my world? Am I shining my light?

Ultimately we can never know the real depth and breadth of our impact, because it is woven inextricably into the future – to generations and places we cannot even imagine. “Uncle Willie was poor, black, crippled, and living back in the lynching times,” Dr. Angelou reminded us, and still his light had awe-inspiring impact. Concluding, she admonished us that we all have a light, and we all have not only an opportunity – but a responsibility – to let it shine.

My Uncle Willie stuttered, had one leg that was shorter than the other and he was a rainbow in my cloud. I am a rainbow in somebody’s cloud. Each of you has that possibility.

Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.

Thank you, Dr. Angelou, for sharing your light with us.  We will do our best to keep it shining brightly.