I’m not one of those people who are affected by a stranger’s death. In truth, I’ve always found it a little bit silly. That is, until today. There are going to be many people more intelligent and well spoken than I putting together their thoughts on the loss of Maya Angelou. In 86 years even the most average person is bound to inspire a few people but this was no average person, this was a phenomenal woman.
Born a black girl in the American south during the end of the 1920’s it comes as no surprise that she did not lead an easy life. Her experience with racism had a major and long lasting impact on her later work. Her parents separated when she was only four years old and consequently she was sent to live with her grandparents. When Maya was 8 years old she was suddenly picked up by her father and reunited with her mother. Her mother’s boyfriend raped her and she did the “right thing” by telling her family. He served one day in jail. However, only 4 days after his release the boyfriend was found murdered (probably by her uncles). Dr. Angelou felt her words had caused his death and was deeply wounded. She refused to speak for almost 5 years. She was returned to her grandmother after his death and thankfully a family friend was eventually able to coax words out of her once again.
So much of Maya Angelou’s story is all too familiar these days. She was a single teenage mother. She was married and then divorced three years later. She struggled with racism, lack of education and resulting poverty. It is only when we put the story in context with years that we can even begin to grasp the reality of her situation. Her son was born in 1945. She was divorced in 1951. Her lifestyle was not acceptable and yet she lived it unapologetically. She lived it with grace and strength that is still an inspiration decades later.
While the internet celebrates Maya Angelou’s contributions to society with cliched quotes, stories of her activism and the ‘liking’ of Facebook statuses I am choosing to celebrate the things that we too often sweep under the rug – the very things that drew me to her story and made me feel so connected to her. This woman inspired me to be who I am today not because of her relationships with Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela but through her relationship with herself. She loved herself with so much passion that one could not help but be swept in to that feeling and translate it in to something for themselves. She did what she had to do to make her life and that of her son’s the best she could and she was proud of it (rightfully so). She was the first black street car operator and that’s amazing but she was also a pimp and a prostitute. She took care of her son on her own for many years but she was also a calypso dancer in nightclubs and toured across Europe with Porgy and Bess. She didn’t let the oppression of societal norms take away from who she was and what she wanted to be. She stayed true to herself in a time that made being a young black woman hard enough without all of her additional circumstances and that is something we can all learn from.
I wish I had more to say. With the emotions swirling inside of me I feel like the least I can do is provide some sort of deep insight. I should be able to sum up all of my feelings surrounding her loss and her life and her journey in to a clever and humorous package. The truth is, I don’t have the words right now. Today the world lost one of the few people that were able to voice the pain of so many with such beauty and simplicity. I was lucky to have run across her work as a young teen and it sticks with me to this day. As I have faced various challenges in my own life I have found myself drawn to different parts of her work that I mistakenly thought was familiar to me already and I suspect I always will. Her voice may be gone but her words will live forever within any of us who have ever felt pain, sorrow, longing, passion or joy so profound it doesn’t seem possible. I’ll leave you with my two favorite poems because choosing one was just too difficult. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading her work before I suggest you do a quick search – I promise it’s worth the time.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
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
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
3 thoughts on “I rise”
You’re a complicated and fascinating woman A.S. , a combination of beauty, brains, and emotions, …
Yer like a mystery , wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a , um, well however that famous quote goes, y’know like a cocktail weenie, wrapped in bacon, so delicious, you’re all that, AND a bag of chips.
And who among us doesn’t love bacon?
omg you’ve given me a brainstorm; a Bacon bikini !
But what if I die of a heart attack trying to knaw thru it before I can reach your sacred temple of Yoni flavored Nirvana-ness ?? Well, that’s a risk i’m willing to take baby, yeah..