Woman of the Week: Maya Angelou

Our new 'Woman of the Week' series celebrates the women of the past and present that epitomise The Unstated woman. Resilient, benevolent, progressive and inspirational, these women are pioneers of the modern age. 

The first in our series is the late revered poet, writer and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou.

 

Most know for her landmark book, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings", a lyrical autobiography that chronicles Angelou's childhood experiences in the Jim-Crow era St Louis, Missouri. The novel is an astute and vulnerable exploration into trauma, racism and the resilience and fortitude that Maya Angelou developed through it all due to a love of literature. 

In the words of Angelou, 

"You can only become truly accomplished at something you love."

And this sentiment is perhaps how she became of the most acclaimed writers of a generation. "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings", was followed by a series of sequels that do not only recount Angelou's life experience but unveil a woman of wisdom, altruism and principle, which was discernible in many aspects of her life. These are, “Gather Together in My Name” (1974), “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1976), “The Heart of a Woman” (1981), “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986) and “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002).

 

From her warm, soulful, melodic manner of speaking and earnest accounts of anguish to her civil rights activism, Maya Angelou was an eloquent voice for people (particularly women) who had similar life experiences but were unable to express themselves, and spoke to the hearts of those who hadn't. 

Before writing Maya Angelou explored her other love; dance, working as a professional dancer in the clubs of San Francisco, including the celebrated cellar club 'The Purple Onion' (said to be an influential establishment during the Beat era of the 1950s and 60s), where she sang and danced to calypso music. Her affinity with calypso music followed her throughout her life and career; in 1957 Angelou recorded a calypso album titled "Miss Calypso", which was re-released as a CD in 1996, and appeared in a Broadway play that inspired the 1957 film "Calypso Heat Wave". A Tony-award winning stage actress Angelou acted in other stage produces, such as "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway. 

The duality of joyful calypso and the heavy hardships of Maya Angelou's life nurtures the notion of optimism and buoyancy that makes Angelou an immutable figure of inspiration. 

One of her most-quoted poems "Still I Rise" (extract below), taken from her 1978 anthology of the same name, overtly explores the theme of resilience, as well as the poem " On the Pulse of the Morning", which Angelou first read at the auguration of Bill Clinton in 1993 and won a Grammy for 'Best Spoken Word' in 1994. 

Maya Angelou garnered many awards and prestigious nominations throughout her life and career, however, it isn't kudos that makes Angelou one of the most honoured women of our times, but spirit and soul. 

 

Still I Rise (Extract)

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.