Remembering Maya Angelou

by Denise

13214I was only about 9 years old when I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  It immediately became one of my favorite books, and I’ve often wondered what about it seemed so compelling to me at such a young age.  News of Angelou’s passing has made me think it over again.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical novel of Angelou’s youth and is a story filled with a lot of pain; and yet there is a core of strength throughout, perseverance, resilience…though I find that word a bit cliche.  I suppose if we look at the story from the perspective of who Angelou ultimately became, she “shouldn’t” have risen so high in esteem, she “shouldn’t” have had such joy and peace about her, she “shouldn’t” have been able to speak and carry herself with such beauty and grace.  And yet she did.  Angelou was a woman with an inner world full of life and beauty regardless of what she experienced and regardless of what the society in which she lived thought about her.  Through her writings and speaking and presence, she invited us into that inner space and painted pictures that enabled her audience to see more about themselves and others than they would otherwise see.

Angelou herself seemed to be very aware of all the “shouldn’ts” she was defying, seemed to be aware that her bearing and persona often presented an equation that some were unsure how to solve.  What was her missing variable?  Angelou addressed this theme in two of her most famous poems, “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman”.

Still I Rise


You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread 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 back yard.

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
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Phenomenal Woman


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.

I say,

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


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

’Cause I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.


Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)