Maya Angelou, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and a prayer for calming fears and worries

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Dear Lord, I am so thankful that I don’t have to worry about the ways of this world. Help me to trust your ways. When I find myself trying to control things in life, help me to remember your will be done. When I am self-absorbed with life’s many responsibilities and struggle to find a clear frame of mind, please send your Holy Spirit to calm my fears and worries. I know I don’t deserve anything, but thank you for thinking of me and for being the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In your Holy Name I pray. Amen.

“You’re going to be famous,” Billie Holiday told Maya Angelou in 1958, “but it won’t be for singing.” Billie was prophetic. Mute as a child, Maya Angelou went on to become one of the most powerful voices in American society. Who can ever forget the powerful, precise voice that dominated the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton as she recited “On the Pulse of Morning”?

Her journey from silence to worldwide acclaim is an amazing one, told by her in five autobiographical volumes: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Gather Together in My Name; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman; and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. But it is precisely one of these volumes, Caged Bird, that has garnered her the dubious distinction of being one of the most banned writers in the United States. The powerful depiction of her childhood rape has caused schools and libraries across the country to deem it “inappropriate.”

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis in 1928. At age three, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, a town so segregated that many Black children, she claimed, “didn’t, really, absolutely know what whites looked like.”

“ ‘Thou shall not be dirty’ and ‘Thou shall not be impudent’ were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation,” she remembers in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Each night in the bitterest winter we were forced to wash faces, arms, necks, legs and feet before going to bed. She used to add, with a smirk that unprofane people can’t control when venturing into profanity, ‘and wash as far as possible, then wash possible.’ ”

When Maya Angelou was seven, while on a visit to her mother, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She reported this to her mother, and the man was tried and sent to jail, which confused and upset the young girl. When he was killed in prison for being a child molester, she felt responsible and spent the next five years in total silence.

With the help of her grandmother and another woman, Bertha Flowers, who introduced her to literature, Maya slowly came out of herself, graduating at the top of her eighth-grade class, and moved to San Francisco to live in her mother’s boarding house. She went to school, took dance and drama lessons, and in her spare time, became the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. An unplanned pregnancy made her a mother at age sixteen, and she later had a short-lived marriage with Tosh Angelos; still later, she adapted his surname and took the nickname her brother used for her as her first name.

Working at a variety of odd jobs, she eventually began to make a living as a singer and dancer. In 1954, she toured Europe and Africa with a State Department-sponsored production of Porgy and Bess. Upon returning to the United States, she created a revue, Cabaret for Freedom, as a benefit for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Later, at King’s request, she served as the northern coordinator for the SCLC.

In 1961, she and her son left the United States with her lover, Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter, to live in Cairo, where she tried to become the editor of the Arab Observer. The Egyptians wouldn’t consider a woman in such a position, and her lover was equally outraged. She left him and moved to Ghana, where she lived for five years, working as an editor and writer for various newspapers and teaching at the University of Ghana. She loved the people of Ghana. “Their skins were the colors of my childhood cravings: peanut butter, licorice, chocolate, caramel. There was the laughter of home, quick and without artifice,” she wrote in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. But she never felt completely accepted and returned to the United States in 1966.

She began writing books at the urging of James Baldwin, who had heard her tell her childhood stories and encouraged her to write them down. (Another story has it that it was a chance meeting with cartoonist Jules Feiffer that was the impetus.) But the multitalented dynamo continued to act in both plays and films and began to write poetry and plays as well. In 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a screenplay produced, the Björkman film Georgia, Georgia, and she won an Emmy nomination for her performance in Roots. When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was made into a TV movie, Maya wrote the script and the music. She also wrote and produced a ten-part TV series on African traditions in American life. She has received many honorary degrees, serves on the board of trustees of the American Film Institute, and is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Her autobiographies have been criticized for not being completely factual, to which she once replied, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth. You can tell so many facts that you fill the stage but haven’t gotten one iota of truth.” Despite I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings having been one of the most banned books in America, she is deeply respected throughout the country for her amazing capacity not merely to survive, but to triumph.

The ability to control one’s own destiny…comes from constant hard work and courage.

Maya Angelou

Well-loved poet Christina Rossetti was born to the arts. Her father, a poet in exile from his home in Italy for his politics, moved to England and taught at King’s College. Her two brothers were the equally gifted pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti, a poet and editor of a widely known periodical of the day. Christina’s older sister Maria, a writer and scholar of the Italian poet Dante, joined an Anglican order and dedicated her life to serving the needy.

Shyly beautiful and alleged to be hot-tempered, Christina was used repeatedly as a model for the Virgin in the memorable paintings of her brother. Her sharp wit was appreciated by the friends her brother Dante Gabriel would invite to their home—Edmund Gusset, William Shields, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Coventry Patmore, William Morris, Richard Garnett, and Walter Watts-Dunton, as well as writers, political thinkers, and all manner of creative, intelligent people who gathered to exchange views, artistic and otherwise.

Christina pursued poetry passionately. Influenced by John Keats, she wrote prodigiously from a young age. By age seventeen, her first collection had been published. She wrote more than 1,100 poems, many resonant with a religious fervor, while both she and her mother worked at a day school to help support the family.

One of the most widely read women writers of her day, achieving both acclaim and respect, Christina fell in love with her brother’s friend, the artist James Collinson, when she was thirty. But she ultimately turned away from the relationship because of a difference in religious doctrines. Deeply spiritual, she had ascetic tendencies, abandoning the game of chess because she was “too eager to win.” She wouldn’t attend plays (sinful), prayed several times a day, and fasted and confessed regularly. She memorized the Bible and could quote it at length. Ten years after spurning Collinson, Christina gained the affections of her father’s student, Charles Bagot Cayley. Once again, his faith didn’t garner her approval, and she refused her last chance for love and marriage.

At the age of forty-one, she fell ill with Graves’ disease. Christina kept to herself after that, always writing, until she died from cancer in 1894 at the age of sixty-four. When she was on her deathbed, her brother was shocked when she screamed out, “My heart then rose a rebel against light.” She died as her brother had portrayed her, a virgin, her passions poured out on the page.                              

Pain is not pleasure
If we know
It heaps up treasure—
Even so!
Turn, transfigured Pain,
Sweetheart, turn again,
For fair thou art as moonrise after rain.

Christina Rossetti


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