I wish I could say that I thought of the title of this essay myself. I didn’t. It came from a young woman giving an acceptance speech a few weeks prior during the Advancement Project’s awards ceremony honoring the work she and others are doing with the civil rights group, The Dream Defenders. Actually, while on stage, she admitted she had gotten the phrase from her grandmother, who would constantly remind her that whenever she felt like giving up she should consider how many souls were attached to her purpose.
When I left the awards gala, her words—that one phrase—latched on to me and has lingered in my heart ever since.
Think about it; those words are powerful. And honestly, all words are powerful. It is something that Dr. Maya Angelou reminded us over and over again in her great depth of work that spanned nearly half a century. Words are power; they’re fuel. We can use our words to uplift our people or we can use them to tear others down. It’s up to us how we want to use the power of the tongue.
By now, the world knows that our great voice, Dr. Angelou, has left us physically. But her powerful words, angelic spirit, and motherly knowledge will live on forever.
I was first introduced to Dr. Angelou as a child while reading “Why The Caged Bird Sings.” I was engulfed by her courage despite her difficult childhood. During the early part of her life she became mute. She didn’t speak for five years after the man who abused her was killed days after being released from jail. In a biography she said:
“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone …”
It wasn’t until she met teacher and family friend, Bertha Flowers, that Angelou reclaimed her voice. And what a voice it was. During her lifetime, she wrote seven autobiographies, dozens of poems, and a number of screenplays for television and film. She performed her esteemed work before world leaders and served as a mentor to the thousands of people who followed her on Twitter. Angelou lived her life on purpose. Millions of souls were attached to her life’s work. From billionaire Oprah Winfrey, who said after Angelou’s passing:
“I’ve been blessed to have Maya Angelou as my mentor, mother/sister, and friend since my 20s. She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her.”
From President Bill Clinton, who released a statement saying:
“The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace. I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed.”
To little old me—an aspiring publisher, writer and filmmaker—who watched Angelou from afar as she deposited her words into so many lives that needed uplifting and encouragement. What if Dr. Maya Angelou never learned that her words were powerful and stayed mute? What if she never gifted her words to the world? How many souls would have been lost because she didn’t live her life on purpose?
As a child, I thought of myself as being worthless. I even considered suicide at the age of 13. “No one would really care whether or not I’m here,” I told myself. But the truth is that my self-inflicted death would have stolen the souls of my family. All of the people who I’ve encountered during my journey would have never been influenced by me simply living. Today, thankfully, I don’t have those thoughts anymore. But what creep in from time to time are the questions of my purpose in life. I spend long hours working on my magazine, my essays, my film projects and events. The work is hard, ambitious and enormous, while the money is miniscule. I sometimes question if I can continue on this journey—this path down a long, dark tunnel where the light at the other end seems hundreds of miles away. At times I get weary; at times I get tired. At times, I dare say, I’ve thought about quitting. But at the lowest moments of my life I get reminded why I’m doing my work. I received my reminder through a short text message in April.
Last September I published an article on Michael Giles, a young black man in the military who was sent to prison for 25 years for “standing his ground” after an incident in which he shot a man in the leg who was trying to attack him. His attacker left the hospital the next day while Giles was sent to prison. While attending a conference, I interviewed Giles’ parents on the floor of the convention center and wrote the story in between sessions. Recently, his mom sent me a text message thanking me for being the first publication to cover her son’s story. She was preparing for an interview on Politics Nation with the Rev. Al Sharpton and heading to meet with Florida legislators the next morning to discuss her son’s case. She said thanks to emPower magazine her son’s story was being picked up nationally.
This brings me back to where I began. How many souls are attached to your purpose? We may not be as prolific of a poet as Dr. Maya Angelou, as great of a singer/songwriter as Jill Scott or as scholarly as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, but we all have a purpose. And whether or not you want to believe it, souls are attached to your purpose. There are people out there, some you may not have encountered yet, who will one day need what you have to offer: the cure for cancer, a new social media tool that revolutionizes the world, a piece of legislation that will help millions of Americans, a song that causes people to come together, a non-profit organization that creates opportunities for hundreds of black youth—who knows how many lives are attached to your dreams.
I’m ending this essay with a quote from Maya Angelou. Meditate on it. Hang it up in your office space. Read it over and over again whenever you feel like giving up. Recite it to yourself to remind yourself why you were placed on this earth. Remember words are powerful and a source of life. Use your words and the time you have on this earth wisely. Dr. Maya Angelou did.
“If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you. And so you can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself so you can internalize, ‘Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto. I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ That’s one thing I’m learning.” — Dr. Maya Angelou
I originally wrote this piece for my online magazine, emPowermagazine.com.