“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,”
Maya Angelou -“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
She wrote her mind, she wrote her experiences, she wrote about us. In her husky, big and rhythmic voice, Maya, originally named Marguerite Ann Johnson, laid the foundation for our stories. She spoke them, and she sang them…she made them rise.
Still I Rise by Maya is a poem that means a great deal for me. It is a poem whose words, I believe many can relate with. I choose to celebrate her life instead of being sad that she is gone. I will revel her life by looking at her poem, Still I Rise and see how her words speak to us long, long after Maya had put them down.
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.
For a lady who at 3 witnessed her parents’ divorce, was abused at 8, got a son at 16, toiled as a single parent, and worked as a prostitute and a streetcar conductor (I can’t imagine her hanging on our matatus). Indeed she went through all that and more. But, we probably may have been through less or worse of this. Sure enough, it affected Maya who would not speak for about six years after being molested. “My seven-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she recalled. But, she rose to be an acclaimed writer and singer. Her tone in this poem as her other works is laden in unstoppable defiance. Confirming that, she ‘knows why the caged bird sings’. And she asks…
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.
Maya, lived in sassiness, walked in it and exuded it. Maya was not wedged on the darkness of her skin or that she was a woman or on religion or sexual orientation. Instead like the moons and suns she was fixated on a greater fight. She stood for humanity, love and the desire to bring kindness into the world. Her tone overcame sexism and the oppression of women. The lady from Stamps, U.S.A rose to be a beacon of hope to many of us…she did not know us but we knew her…we know her. We knew the spring in her steps and the sassy cheerful soul. As if to challenge and provoke her oppressors she queries:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
For this stanza, I saw her recital on YouTube. Oh, the shear energy in her words, and the questions struck me. For it is true that we bow and droop and fizzle in the face of adversity. Like a broken clock, we lie and hope someone would fix us. But not Maya, her voice reverberated in Egypt when she worked there as a magazine editor. It echoed in Ghana where her time there set the ball rolling for Martin Luther King and Malcom X. She dedicated her time, her skills and her thoughts to names that history has refused to ignore. Not knowing that, her name too would be revered in her life and beyond. Again for this she asks,
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.
For a lady who stood at six feet tall, silver hair and powerful lungs; these were thoughts that pickled your brain. What did she mean by that? Haughtiness. Laughter. Maya spoke because she knew no one else would speak as she would. This would see her lecture, write speeches and perform and dance her spoken word(s). For until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters. And to the hunters she dares them:
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.
Still like air, she will rise. The life in her words are alive, they are breathing, pulsating and true. Words can shoot. Eyes can pierce. Hate can kill. But, she, like her friend Martin Luther King, decided to stick with love as hate is too great a burden to bear.
And in exuding her femininity she fronts:
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?
She was a woman. A bold, phenomenal woman whose femininity, gentleness and aura is etched and stamped in all that she did. It was in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the stride of her step and in the curl of her lips. And as she shares in her poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ you can understand why she is proud. She says: ‘Cause I’m a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.
The dancer and actor in her concluding stanzas she proclaims:
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.
Huts of History shame. Past that’s rooted in pain. Incredible truths. More so bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Her poem speaks of the universal notion of the defiance of the downtrodden. Of hope and optimism in despair. She once said “All my work is meant to say, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”
She is gone but we are left with her words, and ultimately her legacy. And it is this legacy of a woman who lived to be 86 but her thoughts are still young and fresh. A legacy that our generation and those to come will look up to the sky, and see it all there…and as she said, There I go RISING.
First Published here.