For some people, it seems as if they were destined to fill a specific purpose in life. Perhaps I am one of those individuals because as soon as my parents decided to name me after the poet and activist Maya Angelou, I grew up knowing I had the duty to advocate for the black community. I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, which I remember being a city rich with diversity. My family was featured in local newspapers for celebrating Kwanzaa and speaking on our heritage. We had a couple of incidents with racism, none directed at me. Still, my father and mother taught me how to defend myself and my culture, nonetheless.
My father and mother raised me to know my culture —who I am is a product of those who came before me. Their battles paved the ground that I walk on today, and their struggle inspires me to change the world around me. I loved the history of our cultural heritage because, for so long, it was a hidden secret shrouded in mystery. You could uncover this secret history by listening to stories passed down through generations.
As I grew older, I realized our history was not a cute hidden secret. The past has been deliberately silenced by those in power for a specific purpose. The “modern historical narrative” of the United States is a construct that erases minorities to justify systemic oppression. The black community’s astonishing achievements and the leaders who rose to defy systemic oppression were swept under the rug. Our heroes were neglected, so Black people would believe that the only true heroes were white elites. Black history was tokenized in our education as a topic that we discussed in February. Black History Month recycled the same set of historically mainstream black visionaries: and those people were Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and sometimes Rosa Parks. Year after year, we learned to read the same stories and heard the same dreams. My mother and father taught me we were more than the small molds our schooling fit us into— we were inventors, scientists, doctors, war heroes, kings, and queens of majestic nations never memorialized adequately in the pages of our textbooks. Similarly, we were not truly taught about the inhumanity of the “white heroes” in the American narrative. We were informed that George Washington was a hero with wooden teeth, but the reality was that Washington paid 122 shillings to have the teeth of enslaved people implanted in his mouth in 1784.
I never truly began to understand the importance of these issues or truly activated until I had a family of my own. After my son’s birth, I knew I needed to protect him in every way from the racial oppression prevalent in American society. After my son was born, my husband and I moved to Shelton, and I quickly realized the importance of my parents’ lessons. Initially, I was happy about the move. The change in scenery from the town-turned-city of Norwalk to the quiet woodsiness of Shelton was refreshing. The promise of the school system and its positive ratings were also very appealing. Our son is four, and we loved the idea of a large backyard, welcoming neighbors, and small-town vibes. But we quickly realized a large backyard and unfriendly neighbors was an unfortunate, yet almost necessary trade-off. Our first interactions were stares as we moved in, as we smiled at our neighbors, they looked back with confusion, which then morphed into awkwardness. Almost immediately, we put our guard up. Despite the apprehensive initial contact, we met a select few neighbors who seemed happy to know us. My son is pretty irresistible, so it is hard to not love him.
For a while, things got better; people would smile and occasionally interact with us. Many would assume we moved here from Bridgeport because it had a large Black population. My husband and I would give each other “the look” that notes the subtle racism built into white society. There were still people who chose not to engage with us, so we decided to ignore them right back.
Eventually, we read up on Shelton’s history to gain insight into what compelled the citizens here to act the way they do. We were shocked to discover that Shelton is a predominately white city, with only 1.98% of its population being Black. Indeed, people of color comprised only 6% of the city’s population. Upon further research, we found out in the 1980s, a lead member of the Ku Klux Klan lived in Shelton. The Klan’s strong historical presence showed no evidence at the surface level, but we were convinced that ties to the Klan may still exist. I was hesitant to stay in Shelton after these revelations, but a large part of me understood that I was supposed to be here. I felt compelled to educate this town and show them the very things my parents instilled in me, which I will pass down to my children.
George Floyd’s murder ignited a fire that was always simmering under the surface. When he cried for his mother, the flame soared. He was not just calling for his own mother. I believe he was calling for all mothers, for all women, to wake up and change what is happening to thousands of black men and women. The murder of George Floyd is another call for Black people to become involved in activism. It made me realize that my work as Secretary of the NAACP Valley Chapter and a grassroots activist in Connecticut is more important than ever. I do not want my son to grow up in a world where racism and racial violence are as commonplace as they are now. We cannot wait for the right moment to create change. There is no right time, the time is now. You, me, everyone has the power to make a change.
I hope this article finds you well, and if your fire has been slowly burning or if it just lit as you read this, I look forward to working with you. I have resources and ways you can help with this movement. As I have always said, anyone is welcome to join this movement. We need everyone’s gifts to make a lasting change. No gift is too big nor too small. I challenge you until the next article to find that gift. I hope you figure out how you can use your gift, and you come to find me. I am excited to hear about it!
Maya Angelou Spruill
Maya Spruill was born and raised in Stamford, CT. She is a proud wife, mother, and community organizer. She is Secretary of the NAACP Valley Chapter and a state wide racial task force member. Maya's goal is to change the world our children will grow up in, one small city at a time.