National best selling author, genius, icon for the civil rights and feminist movements, Dr. Maya Angelou, has been hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature. Her death shook me to the core. I knew the 86-year-old was sick, but in my mind, Dr. Angelou was a hero and heroes never die.
Headlines flooded my timelines, praying for Dr. Angelou to RIP, young photos of her littered Instagram and collectively, the world paid their respects to the fallen icon. But when people started bringing up Maya Angelou’s past as a sex worker, I was immediately annoyed.
Blogger, Peechington Marie of TitsandSass.com asked, “So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?”
I’m not sure if it’s safe to say that Dr. Angelou’s past as a sex worker was a guarded secret, since she talked about it herself in one of her great works, “Gather Together In My Name:”
“I sat thinking about the spent day. The faces, bodies and smells of the tricks made an unending paisley pattern in my mind. Except for the Tamiroffish first customer, the others had no individual characteristics. The strong Lysol washing water stung my eyes and a film of vapor coated my adenoids. I had expected the loud screams of total orgasmic release and felt terribly inadequate when the men had finished with grunts and yanked up their pants without thanks.”
“Gather Together In My Name” follows Dr. Angelou’s journey through the course of two years, during which she admittedly pimps for a lesbian couple (an idea she proposed to them), works as a prostitute, almost loses her son to a kidnapping caretaker and only avoids drug addiction due to a chance encounter with a friendly junkie who warns her of heroine’s side effects. Despite these difficult experiences — what Angelou called “life’s assaults” — the book did something so powerful–it ended on a more hopeful note, with Dr. Angelou saying “I had no idea what I was going to make of my life, but I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I’d never lose it again.”
Not only was Dr. Angelou candid about her sordid past, but she was able to show, through her incredible life works that your past helps to build on your future…if you let it. If nothing else, this story proves that sex workers come from all sorts of backgrounds and hold all sorts of futures; they are not necessarily victims, and they have the power to choose to be independent women.
What do these critics of Dr. Angelou’s alleged secret past want? Did they want her to mention it every time she was asked to speak at a university? Do they want it to be read about in her obituary? Your past is only that…the past. Dr. Angelou is the poster child of championing your past for a brighter future.
“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet,'” Dr. Angelou said in an interview. “They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name.”
In Dr. Angelou’s simple, but impactful words, I think she sums up her past in a way that only she can, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”