For five years Maya Angelou has been speaking to Jill Herring. Walking home on Henry Street Thursday morning, Herring heard her for the first time.
“You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt. But still, like dust, we rise,” reads the message, spraypainted 10 years ago on the wall of a corner store on Henry Street in Dixwell.
Those words were adopted from a poem by Maya Angelou. The renowned poet, best known for her classic coming-of-age autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, died Wednesday at the age of 86.
Herring (pictured above) has passed that store since moving into the neighborhood. Only Thursday did she notice Angelou’s words.
“You’d never think you’d see that here in the ‘hood,” Herring said.
The lines sprayed on the Orchard Street Market are adopted from Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” about overcoming the legacy of slavery. In 2004, graffiti artist Edward Smith painted the words on a wall featuring characters from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch.
Those words have greeted hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day since then as they have walked or driven by the store.
Angelou’s lines may not be on the wall much longer. Dooley-o Jackson, a graffiti artist, said he and others are planning to paint over the wall in the coming weeks, when they paint a mural on the store’s other wall in memory of Abdul Rawas, the Orchard Street Market clerk who was shot and killed at the store in January 2013.
Herring passed by the mural on Thursday morning on her way home from a podiatrist appointment. She said she was saddened by the news that Angelou has died.
“I think she was a very strong role model,” Herring said. Angelou commanded respect, Herring said, and grew old gracefully, becoming wiser and more powerful as she aged.
Herring said she has lived in the neighborhood for five years, yet she had never before noticed the Angelou quote on the wall. “I think it’s deep,” she said. “I never even read this.”
The message, Herring said, is that “you can’t let nothing get you down.”
The neighborhood isn’t safe, Herring said. “A guy died at this store.” Herring said she doesn’t linger outside. She goes to work in Hamden, comes home and shuts her door.
Angelou’s message suggests that people can overcome all that, Herring said. “Even if you’re in the hood, you can still rise, if you want to.”
“I’m going to show this to my daughter,” she said.
Herring said she’ll always remember Angelou as a “phenomenal woman,” just as another poem of hers says.
“She’ll be sorely missed by me,” said Bill, another passerby. Of the quote, he said, “it means the same thing when Obama ran—change is going to come. Sooner or later, everybody is going to rise, if you want to be a part of it.”
“She didn’t let the color of her skin hold her down,” said James Rose, who was standing outside Handsome Cuts barber shop, a few doors down from the mural. “I respect all she been through and still be who she was. That’s what a lot of us forget how to do.”
“We rise” is a good message for the neighborhood, said Eric Anderson, a barber at Handsome Cuts. You can find beauty even in difficult circumstances, he said. “Like a rose growing in concrete.”
“It’s particular for this area,” said Taveres Lindsey, another barber. “It’s basically the ‘hood. ... Some people think they can’t get out of the ‘hood.”
“It’s the ‘hood in your mind,” said Rose. “She’s letting you know you don’t got to live in bullshit.”
“That’s perfect right there,” Lindsey said of the quote. “But I wish it was bigger.”
A New Mural?
Lindsey’s wish may come true, or the words may soon be gone all together.
“We’re in the midst of painting that over,” said Jackson, the graffiti artist planning to paint the wall.
He said he and his collaborators haven’t come up with a final design, but that he may paint over the Angelou quote. If they do keep the quote, they’d write it better, he said.
Edward Smith, the artist who originally painted the wall and the quote, said he grew up as a “big fan” of Angelou.
In 2004, when he painted the mural, “there was a lot of things going on in that neighborhood,” Smith said. He wanted to “have some positive message for people to look at. That’s the main reason I painted the mural.”
Smith said he added the Disney characters for neighborhood kids to enjoy; the Lilo and Stitch movie came out in 2002 and was still popular. He added the Angelou quote as an additional positive message.
The quote, to him, means that “no matter what happens, no matter if someone says bad things about you or spreads negative rumors, there’s a way to get past it,” he said.
Smith, who’s 42, said he was exposed to Angelou’s work at about age 10. “I always followed her, due to my family,” he said. “She’s really big in the black community.”
Jackson said he painted a mural on the wall before its current iteration, back in 2000 or 2002 (pictured). He and Smith belong to a group of artists called TSB, for The Soul Brothers. “We go around trying to put more art and color in the neighborhoods.”
Jackson said TSB has permission to paint the wall, a project members will fund out of their own pockets. He and Smith said it’s time to paint over the wall, to put something new there.
“It should never have been left like that,” Jackson said. He said TSB meant to paint more on the wall, but the project has gone unfinished for a decade.
“It’s been kind of sitting there,” Jackson (pictured) said. “I wanted to do something special for this wall.”
“We trying to figure out what do we want to put up there,” Smith said. “Something that’s positive.”
Jackson said the Angelou quote is good, but that the wall could have something more powerful. “I think it could be a better message.”
“Either we’ll incorporate more stuff from Maya Angelou of famous quotes from people, or something from the Bible,” Smith said. “Who knows? But it has to be something positive, something uplifting.”
Jackson said he has an idea for a “stop the violence” mural with an image of a screaming mother ripping through police tape at a murder scene. He also has an idea for a picture of a preacher “reaching out to people and telling them to just free yourself from all this madness.”
“Sometimes, in certain walls in certain communities, they need some kind of message,” Jackson said.