“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.—I am human and nothing human can be alien to me.”
One of the greatest honors I have had was to be a student of Dr. Maya Angelou. The words of Terrence, the Roman slave and poet, marked the beginning of every class I took with Dr. Maya Angelou. This single line gives voice to a truth found throughout Dr. Angelou’s poetry and gives grounding to so many of the lessons and wisdom that she passed on in that class.
Like many deep truths, these are words that can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. For Terrence, they were words of affirmation and hope. They underscored the critical reality that his identity was found in his humanity more than it was his status within Roman society. For Dr. Angelou, who had been raped as a young girl, marginalized by racist and sexist social structures, these words captured a hope that she always knew and has spent a lifetime giving words to.
For those who are comfortable, these words are an appeal to turn to our humanity as means of empathy and connection to those who are suffering and oppressed. They are a reminder that while the pain of another might seem far away, distant or separated from us by class, culture or geography, the suffering of another is as close to us as is our own humanity.
Further, when we ignore the hurt of others and turn a blind eye to their oppression, we don’t just harden our hearts but do violence to that which makes us human. Nothing human is foreign to us and so when we turn our heads, we turn our backs on our own humanity. What is human in us is diminished.
In divided times, it can be easy to lose sight of the humanity of those who might be on a different side than we are whether that gap is political, theological, racial, economic, geographic, sexual orientation, gender identity or status of immigration papers.
Still, these words of Terrence remind us that the danger of losing site of the humanity of others is not just a recipe for treating others with cruelty, but endangers our own souls. Dr. Angelou reminded us that when “the comfortable” enter into the fight for justice it should not be out of a sense of pity or paternalism but out of the commitment to preserving human dignity not just for others, but for ourselves.
At a New Baptist Covenant gathering in 2009, Dr. Angelou brought words of encouragement and hope, and at the same time challenge and conviction. We’ve just released a short video of highlights from her remarks and hope you will take a moment to watch, listen and then share with others.
Hannah McMahan is the Executive Director of the New Baptist Covenant