A Tribute to Maya Angelou, Phenomenal Woman
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
Maya Angelou, who died on Wednesday, epitomised the pioneering outsider.
She was born in the midst of segregation, raped as a child, worked as a prostitute and a pimp, yet exuded charisma and humanity and inspired millions of admirers. She was a poet and novelist, a civil rights campaigner and teacher.
Despite the disadvantages of her youth, Angelou did that by being relentlessly present, truthful and unashamed of who she was.
One of her most famous poems, Phenomenal Woman, expresses this powerfully. Here is an extract:
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
Angelou would stride onto the stage and perform her poems, sing them, with a voice full of energy and vigour, and an infectious laugh. It was hard not to believe that there was anything she could not have taken in her stride, or perhaps danced over (she was also a trained dancer).
By being open about herself and her story, she transcended the specific circumstances of her life and connected to a wider humanity. It was not necessary to have been a black girl in the Deep South to empathise with the stories in her five autobiographical books, nor to feel moved by the power of her poems.
Her appeal was broad. She had fifty honorary degrees, a Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Arts 2000 and the Lincoln Medal 2008. She published 30 bestselling titles, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first autobiographical work.
Her family said, “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”
And so, we show tribute to Maya Angelou, that courageous, unstoppable force, and end with a quote from what is perhaps her most famous poem of all, “Still I Rise”.
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.
What better message to outsiders than this. No matter what, still you’ll rise.