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How We Find Our Silenced Voices and Learn to Sing

This child who had been silenced went on to become a world-famous poet who won three Grammys and spoke six languages. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. She had an abounding love for everyone. She was asked by the United Nations to write a poem for the world.

A dance group performs at St. Mary’s Center in honor of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Janny Castillo photo


by Janny Castillo

Editor’s note: The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty has been observed since 1993, when the United Nations General Assembly designated this day to promote awareness of the need to eradicate poverty in all countries. Janny Castillo, Hope and Justice Coordinator for St. Mary’s Center, delivered these remarks at the Oakland observance of the International Day in October 2014.

In my work as an organizer, I share stories that have inspired me. I would like to share one of these stories now. I will speak in her words because her words are best.

1931 — Somewhere in America

When I was three and my brother was five, my mother and father separated. Neither of them wanted us. But my grandmother said, “send them to me.”

My grandmother was very smart and wise. She owned the only black-owned store in a really small town.

When I was seven, we were taken away from her. We were picked up and taken to St. Louis to my mother’s people. We tried to learn and become city kids but it was hard. When I was seven, something terrible happened. I was sexually attacked by my mother’s boyfriend.

I told my brother, even though the man said that he would kill him. But my brother was “kingdom come” to me, and he told me he wouldn’t let himself be killed. My brother told the family and the man was put in jail for one day and one night. Then he was released.

Then two huge policemen came into my mother’s house. My brother and I were playing a game on the living room carpet. The policemen looked like giants. They told my mother that the man who attacked me had been found dead. He had been kicked to death.

I thought my voice had killed him. That was my seven-year-old logic, so I stopped talking. My mother’s family did their best to help me, but they did not know what I knew, that my voice could kill.

Finally, they got tired of the presence of this mad, sullen, silent child so they sent me back to my grandma. That was the best thing that could have happened. My grandma bought me a five-cents tablet and tied a pencil on it. I kept the tablet tied to my waist band, so if anybody asked what I thought, I would write it.

Grandma’s friend, Ms. Flowers, knew that I didn’t speak. There was a library about one-tenth the size of the library in the city. Ms. Flowers said, “I want you to read all the books from a – cl, and make notes, I was eight years old. I read every book. There were many books I did not understand, but I found out that I loved poetry.

When I was about twelve-and-a-half years old, Ms. Flowers invited me to her house for tea cookies and lemonade. She talked about poetry and read to me. Then she said, “You do not like poetry.”

I furiously wrote in my tablet, and said, “yes, ma’am I do.” She kept shaking her finger at me, which I knew to be very rude. I was so upset I ran out the house.

Ms. Flowers didn’t stop there. She followed me back to my grandma’s house, yelling and following me around the room. “You will never love it until you speak it, until you feel it come across your tongue, over your teeth, through your lips, you will never love poetry, never!” She harassed me for many months.

Finally, one day I went under my house where only the chickens go, and I tried to recite a poem, and I found out that I had left my voice. My voice hadn’t left me.

The Child Who Became a Poet

This child went on to become a world-famous poet, who won three Grammys, published seven autobiographies and spoke six languages. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.

She had a fiery, fierce grace and abounding love for everyone. She spoke at the President Clinton inauguration. She was asked by the United Nations to write a poem for the world.

She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, but you may know her best as Maya Angelou. I will end with a few words from her poem, a brave and startling truth:

When we come to it

We, this people, on this wayward, floating body

Created on this earth, of this earth

Have the power to fashion for this earth

A climate where every man and every woman

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety

Without crippling fear


When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

After learning about Maya Angelou’s story, people joined hands in the spirit of community and compassion. Janny Castillo photo


International Day to Eradicate Poverty

“On this International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, let us recognize that extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere. Let us recall that poverty is a denial of human rights. For the first time in history, in this age of unprecedented wealth and technical prowess, we have the power to save humanity from this shameful scourge. Let us summon the will to do it.” — Kofi Annan


by Janny Castillo

It is I, friends of St. Mary’s,

who stand here in this place.

It is I, who once lived head down and bent

Suffering on hard ground

and hard times.


So bent I could not,

would not

dare to look up and see my light,

OR your light,

OR God’s Divine Light.


A Light whose only purpose was to lead me

from my dark night

into morning light.


See my wrinkles, from too much crying

And not enough laughing

see my feet

walk slowly

so as not to disturb the deep pains

in my knees

and in my back.


I tell you though, I ran for years

through poverty-rich streets,

rich with violence and despair.


I ran

with longing

for dignity, for food, for rest.


Those days are gone, friends of St. Mary’s.

It is I, who stands here in this place,


I stand here to tell you

that those days behind me,

are only that…

Behind me!


Despite what my history demands of me,

Despite what my circumstances demand of me,

I choose today to stand with you

To stand true, to tell you that

I am strong, capable and well.


I am dignity. I am courage.

I am loved by my Creator.

I am loved by my community.

I am loved by you, my St. Mary’s Friends

And you are loved by me.


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