The first two weeks of April are filled with significant commemorations, and I’m not even talking about Easter and Passover. April 4th of this year was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. April 9th was the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his execution by hanging at the Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945. And, today, April 12th, is Yom HaShoah, the day the Jewish community in particular remembers the victims of the Holocaust. [David Tuck, the Holocaust survivor who spoke on the College campus on Sunday was a powerful witness to that memory.]
Each of these events warrants reflection in its own right, but together, I find that they take on an added layer of significance; for me, they point to the way in which the whole human family is called to come together across our differences–not only to remember, but also to repent, and to recommit ourselves to renewed actions of peace and justice, especially for the most marginalized and oppressed among us. [One local example: I was at a presentation yesterday where the terribly high suicide rate of LGBT youth was lifted up, along with the added pressures they experience of bullying, exclusion, and alienation. This is one group that desperately needs our attention and support.]
However, there is more I want to say today. A colleague of mine out at CLU told me that there was another event that could be added to this mix, of which I was not aware: April 4th also would have been the 90th birthday of Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou is, of course, someone else who suffered greatly, but amazingly, she also was able to construct a career of great beauty, power, and significance out of that suffering–through that suffering, and not just in spite of it. I feel like in her poetry she saw humanity with clarity, but also with hope for who we could be together. She saw our strength as well as our weakness, our love as well as our cruelty, and, perhaps more than anything else, our beauty in all of our differences and divergence.
My first encounter with Angelou was in college, reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Incidentally, this is the refrain from her poem, “Caged Bird:”
Then later, I heard her when she spoke at CU when I lived in Boulder. I will never forget her dynamic voice and her powerful presence, or the woman who signed for her–they were both magnificent. Then again later–I think I was in Berkeley by then–I was in some restaurant and her poem “Still I Rise” was painted on the back of the bathroom door. And then, of course, who could forget Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and her poem “A Rock, a River, a Tree.” She was simply spectacular.
So, somehow, lifting up her birthday in the midst of all these other events of death and commemoration helps me see them all in a new way. She reminds me of how life can come out of death, and she testifies to the transformative power of endurance, and the power that comes from speaking the truth, especially when it is told in love and beauty.
So in light of all that there is to reflect on and commemorate these first two weeks of April, Maya Angelou reminds us that, certainly, we are called to remember, and not forget, but we also are called to keep going, not to give up, and not to lose hope. There is great beauty in this world, and there is great strength and love in the human community. And this is true regardless, and it will abide.