On Isla Vista and Maya Angelou

by Rafaela Acevedo-Field

Between the UC Santa Barbara shootings and the passing of Maya Angelou, these past few days have  been tough. When I read about Maya Angelou, I thought, not now. That’s too many losses.

Feeling the need to revisit and read some African American Literature, I recently became a fan of Angelou’s page on Facebook. I was hoping to use it as a reminder this summer to read more of her work. Her posts have been refreshing respites of reflection and contentment in the midst of a hectic semester of teaching. Her reflections were so insightful, graceful, full of simplicity and power all at once, that they have been startling reminders of what the command of the language can do .

I just finished teaching my third year at Whitworth University. Before that, I was a graduate student at UCSB. A few days ago I was on Facebook messaging a grad school friend who is still there when some of our mutual friends began to post rumors of the violence taking place. Many of them live in family student housing located close to Isla Vista; it is also where I lived with my husband and two children for six years. The community is full of faculty and graduate student families with children. My grad school friends still living there, some of whom are also parents, must have be terrified about violence anywhere close to their children. I know I would have been.

I’m not entirely sure why it has felt so heavy. I did not know any of the victims personally, but I know the community and it is an important part of my family history now. I met my husband there in the mid-90s and I lived in an apartment complex in Isla Vista when we were dating. I was working on my MA and he was finishing his Ph.D. After we married we lived away for a few years, but then went back in 2004 when I was admitted to the doctoral program in history. Both of my children were born while we lived there. My life as a graduate student there was a juggling act of learning to be a parent in family student housing, while learning to read historiography, doing research, and writing a dissertation.

The IV Deli Mart where many people took refuge from the bullets was a place my husband and I frequented. The place is known for its delicious falafel sandwiches and I always appreciated the gracious man who made them.

A good friend from my old church has been a sorority mother in the neighborhood. It dawned on me later that she would have opened the door if the perpetrator had targeted the sorority house where she lives. Other friends are mentors to some of the students directly affected by the tragedy, and from their descriptions, the otherwise lively campus is in mourning. Healing will take a while.

On my drive home the other day, NPR played Angelou reading her poem “Still I Rise”:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

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.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

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 back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

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
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

UCSB and Isla Vista, may you rise again.

Rafaela Acevedo-Field, Ph.D., earned her doctorate in history at University of California, Santa Barbara and holds a master’s degree in Latin American and Iberian Studies, also from UC Santa Barbara. She came to Whitworth’s history department Fall 2011.


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