Marking the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou

The celebrated poet Maya Angelou just died. Read about her At the New York Times At CNN from Time Warner Cable news

Maya Angelou Disc2000
By Rick Lewis, NPS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Read about her at the Poetry Foundation site, where you can also read some of her poetry. Read a quote from her son here, from Gradient Lair

Hear her reciting And Still I Rise here, Phenomenal Woman here

Why am I mentioning a poet here, on a blog about science and how it is communicated to the public? Simply put, my life as a scientist has been influenced by who I am as a person, and Dr. Angelou was one of the voices that shaped me.

I first read I know why the caged bird sings as a college student. It was summer, and I was on campus to do research, but also took some time for myself. There’s a fabulous used bookstore a short walk from where I was living, and one day, wandering around it, I realized I’d heard great things about this book, and hadn’t read it. I bought it, took it back to my dorm room…and fell in love.

It was one passage (and my reaction to it) that is relevant here. In it, Dr. Angelou describes her childhood love of reading, shared with her brother Bailey. She tells us about their decision to memorize a scene from a play by Shakespeare, and how they realized they’d want to change their minds when their grandmother found out Shakespeare was a white man. With those words, Dr. Angelou, whose books are a continuing voice of what life was like for an African-American girl child, whose voice became one for my nation when she read poetry for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, faced experiences I never did, can hardly imagine, but made me feel relief that as a young woman of half European, half not ancestry, I, too, could love and respect the work of white men.

Of course, in my case, those white men were Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. (You knew it would come back to science eventually, right? :-)) I almost sobbed with relief that someone else understood that I sometimes felt guilty or awkward, knowing that part of my genetic and cultural heritage comes from people who died or suffered at the hands of companions of my professional heroes. If she could love Shakespeare’s work, I could love science and not betray my ancestors.

Let me tell you, it just got better from there. In this book, which I now treasure, I learned about being a teacher who loves knowledge, about the power of one’s voice, about the importance of friends and the value of independence. It’s a powerful read, and I can’t recommend it enough.

By Office of the White House. (Via NPR [1], courtesy of the White House)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I haven’t been posting because I was wrapping up a spring class and preparing for my summer class; I am posting today partly because I just took some time for myself for the American Memorial Day holiday and during that time, besides Dr. Angelou’s death, a young man committed a horrifying crime, killing and wounding many people on and around a college campus…because he was not having sex with the women of his hopes. It makes me afraid. I am a woman, and a professor, and a scientist, and those make me remember how close danger may be to my own survival and health. (Selected readings, some of which, so you know, are written by or feature people I know – and I think all of these links are worth reading and digesting, even if I don’t agree 100% with all of them or have my own thoughts about WHY they are important to read: here here here here here here) Having that tiny core of “I AM AND CAN BE”, fortified by Dr. Angelou’s words and example, now goes beyond making it okay to love Darwin and Mendel – it extends to sharing my love with my students and colleagues and YOU, reading this, even in the face of struggles and, yes, danger.

I may later want to say something about how these ideas about feminism and equality and stuff like that have shaped HOW I teach science, too, but right now isn’t the time, because I am more focused on just teaching this week, helping my students with their new problem sets and some funky details of how individual cells live and reproduce. Oh, and to collect the homework assignment I gave my students: to write poetry about biology, as an exercise in learning how to see the world in a new way and to communicate that. (I hope Dr. Angelou would be proud of a scientist using poetry this way.)

There’s a song, today, playing in my head, making me hopeful that I am part of a generation carrying on the work of people, but especially of women, who came before me. SeeSweet Honey in the Rock, singing Testimony, here

I am also inspired by this:

I want to add my wish that Dr. Angelou rest in honor and respect. May she rest in the knowledge that her voice lives on.

One comment

  1. Jenn Kramer · · Reply

    Well said. I especially love the homework assignment: to write poetry about biology, as an exercise in learning how to see the world in a new way and to communicate that. A true Smithie, indeed. ,<3

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