A Phenomenal Woman – Celebrating The Legacy of Maya Angelou
Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod 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 backyard.
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.
Here at One Wear Freedom we are all about women. Whether that be by empowering women to feel fabulous in our clothing, by being a female run business – with Jordache at the helm + inspired by her mother Yvonne. Or through blog posts such as these, we want you to feel good, body, mind and soul, and equally importantly, to feel inspired. That is why over the next couple of weeks, we want to talk to you about some amazingly inspirational, black female artists. This is also to tie in with, and to celebrate iconic black women, as part of Black History Month. First up is the late, great, Writer, Teacher and Activist, Dr Maya Angelou.
Born on the 4th April 1928 in Louis, Missouri, USA, and named Marguerite Annie Johnson, ‘Maya’ as she was affectionately named by her brother (it meant ‘My’ to him, as in ‘Mya sister’). Subsequently, she later decided that she preferred the latter. ‘Maya’ came from humble beginnings in a racially segregated USA, yet went on to become one of the most influential female writer’s and black voices in modern literature and history. Here are just some of the things that in our eyes, make her such an inspirational female artist.
Firstly, the events that led her to becoming one of the most popular and prolific black, female, writers of all time, was a traumatic one. Aged just seven, she was raped by her Mother’s then boyfriend. After confiding in her brother about the incident, he told her family. The man was reported to the police for his crime, but received just one day in prison for his heinous act. Four days after his release, he was murdered. It was thought that perhaps some of Maya’s uncles were responsible for his death, and a young Maya, then believed that because she had spoken out about the events that led to this man’s death, her voice had been the thing that killed him. She said, ‘I thought, my voice killed him. I killed that man because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again. Because my voice could kill anyone.’
As a consequence, Maya, stopped speaking for five years. It was at this time that a female family friend, who was also a teacher, stepped in, and began to give Maya books to read, by authors such as William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, as well as black female writers such as Frances Harper and Jessie Fauset. Maya, credited the lady, named Mrs Bertha Flowers, with helping her to find her voice, and beginning to speak again. No-one could have foreseen that the little girl who had once lost her voice, would go on to use it in a way that would influence people all around the world. Maya turned a tragic event that had the power to possibly ruin a young girl’s life forever, into a way to find her own unique voice.
Maya would go on to not only use that voice as a writer, but also as an activist. Firstly, whilst living for a brief time in Ghana, where she was an activist against apartheid. Then later in the USA, where she worked alongside US Civil Rights Leader’s, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X. However, both, were sadly assassinated shortly after she began to work with them. She worked alongside Malcom X to build a new Civil Rights Organisation of African American Unity. While in 1968, Martin Luther King asked her to help him organise a Civil Rights March. However, his life too, was cut short when he was tragically murdered on Maya’s fortieth birthday. Maya was said to be deeply shaken by these events.
However, this would not lead to a defeatist attitude from Maya, as it was also during 1968, that Maya first came to the attention of a US audience as writer, when she wrote, produced and narrated a ten-part documentary series, about the connection that existed between America’s African heritage and Blues Music. The documentary was entitled Blacks, Blue’s Black. The following year also saw her gain international acclaim for her first autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Fifty years since the book was first published, her son Guy Johnson, has said that the book ‘addressed the human heart, from the perspective of the black human heart.’ She has been seen as the first black woman in American literature, to have truly voiced her own experience.
Additionally, Maya crossed further writing boundaries when she went on to write in a host of genres including screenplays, such as Georgia, Georgia. She was the first black woman in the US to write a screenplay. While she also wrote musical scores for singer, Roberta Flack. She also turned her hand to the art of acting, when she took on a supporting role in the TV Series Roots.
Maya also went on to become one of a few Black Professor’s at Wake Forest University, Salem, and was later given a lifetime’s Reynolds Professorship of American Studies there. Angelou described herself as ‘a teacher who writes’. She continued to teach even in her eighties. Always recognising the importance of passing on her knowledge and using her voice to inspire through various means.
In 1995, she used her art to address the world, when she wrote a poem to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. The poem is entitled, A Brave and Startling Truth. In which she addresses humanity as a whole and the power we all have to use our voices to change injustice in the world:
A Brave and Startling Truth, by Maya Angelou
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, we are the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when,
We come to it.
Maya said that she believed that ‘the flower of the human spirit had difficulty blooming, without the natural nourishment of justice and dignity.’ Her son, Guy Johnson, also said that she would always stand up for injustice, whether it related to herself or another. As a consequence of voicing her opinions she was often fired from jobs. But, perhaps it is true of us all that as she once said, we should all remain courageous in the face of adversity, and ‘We should pick up the battle, and make it a better world. Just where you are. It can be better, and it is up to us to try.’
Posthumously, (Maya died aged 86, on 28th May 2014), Maya Angelou leaves behind a legacy that transcends race, class, and sex. The Dr Maya Angelou Foundation, which awards scholarships to deserving students, so that they can attend historically black universities and colleges, is said to commemorate ‘her love of humanity’. The foundation asks that we all ‘reflect on and embody her message of love, peace, generosity, gratitude, equality and justice for all.’
Overall, by reflecting on Maya’s art, her zero-tolerance approach to injustice, and the way that she constantly overcame obstacles only to come back stronger. How she used her voice for a bigger purpose, it is clear to see how we, as women (and men), can all learn from, and be inspired by her example. For as she believed, aren’t we all responsible for addressing the injustice that we see in the world on a daily basis? Whether that injustice is fought globally on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, environmental damage, child abuse, or pressures we face as women, to conform in our appearance. As Maya demonstrated, we are all given obstacles every day to overcome, yet we were also all given a voice for a reason. I believe she would agree that that reason is that we use it.
Phenomenal Woman, by Maya Angelou
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
Finally, as such an inspirational woman, it’s only right that I pick her an outfit from the One Wear Freedom Collection. I believe she would have loved the Ethos behind this amazing company, and as Maya was said to have often worn African attire, even while facing adversity for it whilst living in 1950’s America, I have chosen the Mama Africa, Flax Caftan ensemble for her.
I think she would love this, as this outfit truly embodies the fierceness of a woman, who was never afraid to voice her opinions. To break down barriers. A woman who still influences women all around the world, as much today as she did fifty years ago. For, even today she is the most googled female poet on the planet.