I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are black and white, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish speaking, Native American, and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered. And I am speaking to you all. 

-Dr. Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

I have struggled to put into words the shade of grief I felt on Wednesday after I learned of the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou, to describe the ache I have continued to feel in the days since. But as I reflect on her life and what she meant to me, there is one word that can sum it up:  Auntie.

Maya Angelou touched so many. Her literary works inspired, her activism ignited, her teaching empowered, and for a lucky few her personal mentor-ship guided. I can’t speak for all those who were impacted by Dr. Angelou’s life, but I can speak to the way she impacted me and the community of black women that surrounds me. Over the past two days, I have heard and seen so many black women in my life say that they think of Maya as a family member, an elder, a spiritual guide, and that losing her feels like we “lost an Aunt.” It’s because we have.

She was our Auntie. That fly, fabulous, jet setting aunt with the fascinating stories. Dr. Angelou embodied black girl possibility. Here was a woman who grew up in the deep Jim Crow South. Poor. Black. Sexualized, used, and abused. The type of girl whom the world spits on. Yet in the pages of her books, the lines of her poetry, and the curve of her smile we knew her to be defiantly alive– traveling to places we had never heard of, delighting in the sensuality and beauty of her black body, gracing stages she was never supposed to step foot on, passing out her elegant, biting wisdom like first-aid kits for our black girl souls.

She was our Auntie. That aunt who just gets you, who seems like she can see your insides.  Dr. Angelou understood the black girl struggle intimately. Here was a woman who understood our pain and our hopes, because she had felt them too. We are all forced to stand in the crooked room of a misogynoir world, and we all struggle to stand up straight in the mirror. Maya was in that crooked room with us- and she had not only discovered a way to see herself clearly, but amazingly, she could see us clearly too. She was right there by our sides, pushing and prodding and shaping us, showing us it was possible to hold our heads straight and align our spines with the sky.

Dr. Maya Angelou, we thank you. We are honored that you counted us among your Daughters, and that we may now count you among our Ancestors. We love you. Ashe.