“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: 'I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.'”
Those words, spoken by Maya Angelou, help inform the everyday activities here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Those words take on a greater significance today with news of the passing of this extraordinary writer and poet.
This amazing woman, who lifted herself from challenging circumstances and took her opportunities where she found them – working as a fry cook, dancer, singer and even the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco – expressed herself in ways that gave hope to the hopeless and provided a map for many without direction.
Without deep formal education, she found her voice and wrote some of the most seminal works of poetry and fiction, giving voice to so many without words.
"The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom."
Her words cried for personal courage, self-expression and working for what is right. She lent her voice to many causes, working with global freedom fighters such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela and was an organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Before her death she received many awards, including numerous doctorates, culminating with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States.
When she visited the Freedom Center last November, Maya shared sage advice and wisdom with us that will live in our hearts forever. She told me, “Newsome, we expect something new to come from you, you new man.” It is with that calling that my colleagues at the Freedom Center and I feel empowered to continue sharing the stories of the Underground Railroad that risk being silenced, and fighting for those “caged birds” throughout the world who long and sing of freedom.
"Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide."
Angelou's mortal voice may have been stilled, but her words are immortal. They will continue to inspire generations of freedom fighters with tales of courage, personal persistence and an ongoing battle for self-expression.
—Clarence G. Newsome, president
Image: Angelou addresses the audience in the Harriet Tubman Theater during her visit last November.