A Black woman may survive life traumas that would wound another person to the cellular and atomic core of their being. She may endure physical and sexual abuse, extreme poverty and generational patterns of toxicity. She may cling to hope and life itself even as she is broken by patriarchy, whipped by racism and used by men for their gratification. She may eventually break the social and generational cycles and chains that have kept her captive, realizing the hopes and dreams of her slave ancestors. She may turn inward to her innate gifts, becoming a wordsmith who redefines modern American literature and whose contributions become the standard of her era. She may, through her wisdom, raise up the greatest minds and most powerful figures in the immediate generations to follow, shining as a figurative mother to those who will inherit and shape the world. She may stand as a laureate of the times and be personally invited to speak power into the atmosphere when the leader of the free world is inaugurated. She may reach from the printed word of the page to lift the bowed heads of billions of Black women and women of color, inviting them to see that the old walls are falling down and new paths are opening.

Yet, still, she will be crucified when she uncompromisingly demands the respect to which she is entitled.

Even in death, she may be reminded that, despite her achievement, she is yet unworthy of defining her own boundaries unless she does it in a kind way; unless she bows her head, acknowledges her deemed inferiority, accepts her place in the racial and cultural caste system of our world and begs for the right to be received on her terms.

We know this because it describes the exact circumstance being faced by one as sacrosanct as Dr. Maya Angelou, four years after she departed this mortal coil.

In March, a short clip pulled from an interview Dr. Angelou gave 29 years ago blazed across Twitter and social media when a user shared it with the caption, “I can’t wait to turn 30 so I can read one of yall for calling me by my first name like this.”

In the video, a 20-year-old young lady steps to the microphone saying, “I want to ask Maya her views on interracial relationships”.

Dr. Angelou responds, “Oh, thank you, and first I’m Ms. Angelou.” The young woman adds “Ms. Angelou …” But Dr. Angelou continues, “Yes, ma’am. I’m not Maya, I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you or any other … you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first. Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, your auntie, your teacher, your professor, you see?

What Dr. Angelou lifted in that moment was the long held communal rule-of-thumb that young people must refer to elders with an honorific. For most of us, it is ingrained in our list of social behavioral expectations from an early age. 

Yet, as the number of retweets grew, so did a large number of complaints regarding Dr. Angelou’s correction. Ironically, in this generation of extreme sensitivity, where everyone is fighting for their right to respect, Dr. Angelou’s demand for the same was somehow perceived as a transgression.

Yet, where was she insulting? Did she attack the young lady or demand that security remove her? No. Based clearly on the transcription of her words above, Dr. Angelou merely took a moment to do the following:

A. Educate the young lady on the social rule

B. Explain why she felt she was entitled to such a reception

C. Illustrate the esoteric generational and cultural bonds that linked them

Yet, she was accused of being elitist, rude, and nasty. She was called a “b***h.” Some even asked, “Who does she think she is?” A few claimed to have never heard of her and suggested that since they didn’t know her, she had no right to be so demanding of respect — as if their ignorance was the standard by which she should be judged. Some threatened that they would have cursed her out or attacked her.

The insults and diatribe against her were so offensive that even well-known celebrities stepped into the fray to defend Dr. Angelou:

Though the original conversation slowed down on Twitter, it continued to spread through the various channels of media. Last week, on Monday, March 25, it made it’s all the way to famed daytime talk show, "The View"

The ladies of The View defended Dr. Angelou, sensibly. And now, I will join their ranks:

What upset me most about the treatment of Dr. Angelou was the viciousness with which her very clear, quiet, calm, deliberate and considerate request for respect was met. Had people merely made a joke about how direct she was, perhaps we could have brushed it aside. Yet the insults and vitriol against her, the dismissal and minimization of her person, was spellbinding in the worst ways. 

Dr. Angelou didn’t deserve any of it. She was not rude. She didn’t demean the young lady in any fashion. She asked to be addressed a certain way, explained her logic, and closed by detailing the ties that she believed bound her and the young lady. Yet, because Dr. Angelou didn’t cower her head; because she stood strong and declared her worth, she was seen as harsh and abrasive. As is often the case, when a Black woman demands respect without a bowed head, she is marked with the ”angry Black woman” trope; at times, even in her own community and even by other Black women.

Dr. Angelou later apologized:

Some, as in the caption to the video above, say it’s because she “noticed the disrespect in her intial response”. I challenge that. I think it’s because she realized how the audience was conditioned to perceive a Black woman’s demand for respect. After all, nothing she said was insulting, demeaning, or negative. I believe she understood that her clear and concise request for respect might be considered “short”, so she offered an apology so as not to offend. I believe she remembered that only men can demand to be received on their own terms and that a woman who does it is “too short”. I posit that she recalled that Black woman who ask for respect and set clear boundaries are instantly marked as angry, rude, aggressive, inconsiderate, arrogant, mean, nasty, or worse; even, at times, by their own people. Even women as strong as she was sometimes compromised for the sake of ensuring that she was received clearly. 

Imagine, further, that if one such as Dr. Maya Angelou faced such minimization, how much more difficult it is for the Black women who do not have her esteem and place in the annals of history? How do they stand to the withering blaze of ingrained minimization?

Even more, it’s important to remember that Dr. Angelou grew up in a time when a Black woman could be called “girl” by racists, no matter what her age was. She could also be called things much worse than that, at their leisure. Being referred to as ‘Ms.’ was a luxury not often afforded to the Black women of Dr. Angelou’s youth. It, therefore, must’ve held a special place in her heart to receive that kind of decency and civility.

Consider Sidney’s Poitier’s famous scene in the Oscar-winning 1967 film In The Heat of The Night. Mr. Poitier plays an accomplished Black detective named Virgil Tibbs who travels to the racist south to solve a case. During an initial confrontation, a racist police chief calls him by his first name and demeans him with racial epithets: “Virgil! That’s a funny name for a n***a-boy that comes from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?!”

Majestically, Mr. Poiter delivers his classic line: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”

For a Black man or Black woman in those days, the social rule of being addressed as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’ like their white counterparts did not apply. From slavery to segregation, Black men and women could be called anything in the racist South, including epithets and dehumanizing comparisons to animals. Black men and women from that era remember what it’s like to be denied basic respect, so they take it seriously. For a woman like Dr. Angelou, born in 1928, who lived through the years of segregation, a decent greeting was a luxury she would not be denied. 

However, her accomplishments as a writer, poet, playwright, singer, dancer, actor and civil rights activist aren’t the only reason she has the right to determine how she will be addressed. But surviving the racist South isn't the only reason she had to determine what she be called. All human beings have that right and we should respect it, including when it’s from a Black woman.  

Disclaimer: I do not subscribe to the belief that older people deserve special honorifics simply because of their age; honorifics should be earned by actions and deeds, not merely because you’ve spun around the sun more times than me. Your age should not necessarily afford you certain titles. There are 90 year old fools and 20 year old wise people. Ageism exists, and older people use these outdated principals to lord over younger people.

However, I also believe that people have the right to define how they will be labeled; the name or title to which they will answer. That is exactly what Dr. Angelou did. She should not be shamed or attacked for determining her boundaries and demanding her respect; especially when it is due her many times over not just for being a global force, but because of her basic human rights.

It’s time to stop shaming Black women for determining their boundaries. Dr. Angelou had the right to determine how she wished to be addressed. She had the right to clearly and concisely express her feelings and views. She did need to sugar coat it into sweetness. She did not need to bow her head or make it palatable to those who are offended by a Black woman with power. Black women have the right to demand respect and set clear guidelines, as directly as they need to. 

I will let her words close this piece:

Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells pumping in my living room.

Does my haughtiness offend you? Don't you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines diggin’ in my own backyard.

Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame! I rise! Up from a past that’s rooted in pain! I rise!

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise!

Ms. Maya Angelou