Bay Area Writer Recounts Maya Angelou’s Influence On Her Life, Career

by Brittney Gilbert

Editor’s note: Brittney Gilbert (@brittneyg) is the Social Media Manager for CBS Local in San Francisco and a long-time writer and blogger

For five years, a young Maya Angelou was silent. A child scarred by abuse, she chose not to speak as a way to cope with her pain.

Luckily for us all, Maya Angelou broke her silence. And when she did, she changed the world.

I loved reading from the minute I learned how. I loved fantasy and science fiction and fairy tales. I read books as escape. I picked pages that would carry me far away from boredom or loneliness or fear.

But when I matured as a reader and turned into a teenaged girl, I discovered true stories. I found that non-fiction, written truths, provided a more visceral outlet for the confusion and angst so many young people experience, myself included.

I don’t know why I first picked up “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Perhaps it was the purple and teal accents on the slim paperback spine. It was likely also the title itself, a calling to anyone who has ever felt small and trapped. But I do know that it forever changed me — as a reader, as a writer, as a woman and as a human being. And that with that single memoir, a yearning to tell my own tales caught flame, a fire that still burns to this day.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

What are we without a narrative? We are cells and neurons and impulses and instinct. But with stories we become human. It is our stories that make us who we are. And no storyteller inspired me to tell my tales more than Maya Angelou.

I found insight in stories written by so many of the white men assigned in English classes, but it was the voice of a woman, a minority, a Southerner who had overcome incest and abuse and segregation and racism that set my soul alight. She was more like me than the others. She was with me in my bedroom as I turned her pages, soaking them with tears. She spoke of things I could understand and promised things I’d soon come to know. And she told them with such beauty, such heart, such talent. I wanted to tell stories just like her. Carrying her books meant carrying a pen.

I fall in love with writers, and Maya Angelou was my first love.  She turned me from a reader into a writer. Her courage, her wherewithal, her way of weaving words that can both break your heart and set you free gave me the bravery to put onto paper the realities of a life lived.

You need not read an obituary to know what this remarkable woman contributed to the world, her work alone is more than enough.

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”
― Maya Angelou




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