by Cadi Cliff.

‘I’m a Woman
Phenomenal Woman,
That’s me.
Phenomenal Woman (1978)

On May 28th the voice of the six-foot-tall 86 year old, Maya Angelou, hailed as a Renaissance woman and one of the great voices of contemporary literature, fell silent. With a broad career as a singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first female black director, she’s most famous as a writer, essayist, playwright, poet and civil-rights activist – she was, and will continue to be, formidable. 

Along with three Grammy awards for her spoken-word albums, the novelist was nominated for a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, she was awarded with the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour, by President Barack Obama. She also received the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton. Clinton invited Angelou, in 1993, to write and read the first inaugural poem. Americans all across the country watched as she read On the Pulse of Morning, which calls for peace, racial and religious harmony, and social justice for people of different origins, incomes, genders, and sexual orientations, as Angelou challenged the new administration and all Americans to work together for progress.

My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years

Born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis on April 4th, 1928, her most famous work is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and describes her early life in Long Beach, St. Louis and Stamps, Ark. The first of Angelou’s six autobiographies its publication was both daring and historic given the era of its debut. Over the years it has faced controversy over its portrayal of race, sexual abuse and violence. Angelou’s writing techniques in her autobiographies – the use of dialogue and plot – was innovative for its time and helped, in part, to complicate the genre’s relationship with truth and memory. In one scene she describes her rape by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 7; after testifying against him he was murdered by her uncles and she stopped speaking. “My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years,” she said. This childhood tragedy eventually would lead to her first steps into writing.

A prolific reader in her years of young solitude – she read black authors like Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, as well as canonical works by Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe – it was one of her grandmother’s friends who eventually persuaded her to speak again. Mrs. Flowers, as Angelou recalled in her children’s book Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship (1986), stressed the importance of the spoken word, explained the nature and importance of education, and instilled in her a love of poetry. Angelou recalls her saying: ‘You will never love poetry until you actually feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips.’ In all, Angelou produced more than 30 best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction.

(© achievement)

At 14 she dropped out of school and became the San Francisco’s first African-American, female street car conductor. She later graduated and gave birth to her son, Guy, soon after – the product of a one-night stand. Titled as Dr. Angelou she never actually went to college but has more than 30 honorary degrees and taught American Studies at Wake Forest University. Angelou toured Europe in 1954 and 1955 with the opera production, Porgy and Bess and in 1960 she moved to Cairo, Egypt, to become the editor of an English-language weekly newspaper. The following year, she moved to Ghana and taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama.  While in Ghana she met Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help form his Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Angelou to serve as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou was devastated when King was assassinated in 1968.

a fierce criticism of the past mixed with a kind of survivor’s optimism

By the time I Know Why was published, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were dead, and it seemed that the only hope for black politics lay in the voices that were just beginning to be heard: those of such resolute female politicians as Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, two of the first black women to serve in Congress. Chisholm and Jordan, products of the colonial West Indies and the Old South, respectively, pinned their speeches to the idea of a changing America. It was their brand of rhetoric—a fierce criticism of the past mixed with a kind of survivor’s optimism—that opened the way for Angelou’s narrative of damage, perseverance, and eventual victory.

I Know Why was an important contribution to the wave of black feminist writing in the seventies. Angelou’s real literary cohort, at least in terms of affect, was Anaïs Nin, whose diaries published in the late sixties and early seventies were also heralded as feminist works, the subtle and intense readings of a woman’s soul. Both were theatrical writers—using language to describe and exalt a self that is completed only when it’s being observed – and pioneers of self-exposure.

While Angelou and Nin tended to be more interested in self-revelation than in politics or the feminist perspective, the bold female figure they presented freed many other women writers to open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world. To quote her comment on what Hilary Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2008 meant for women:  ‘Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.’

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