Emma Holding discusses the talents of Maya Angelou. CW: sexual assault.
I first came across Maya Angelou upon hearing her poem Still I Rise. While she is predominantly known for her writing, her life was meaningful in so many more ways; there’s a very good reason why she has was written a series of seven autobiographies. Angelou grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, USA, where she lived with her Grandmother and her brother which then becomes subject of her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In her later life, she worked alongside the great civil rights activists Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It would take far too long to list her litany of achievements relating to human rights and so instead I will tell you one of the predominant reasons why she became my favourite feminist.
Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight and bravely testified against him. After she came forward, several of her uncles beat the accused to death. Angelou blamed herself, specifically her own voice, for his death and subsequently became mute for five years. She finally found her voice again, more beautiful than ever after being encouraged to read poetry by a local woman. Finding her voice again after associating it with so much fear for five years sparked a pattern of resilience which leads her from strength to strength throughout the rest of her life. It is this resilience which makes her my favourite feminist.
Although she is known for many things, her writing, her voice and her literature are the basis of her fame. It is fascinating that this voice was almost entirely destroyed by her experience of sexual violence and oppression as a woman, but this is something she reclaims and creates, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful voices of her age. It was this resilience which instigated the pursuit of a life marked by greatness, as Angelou proceeded to become the first ever African American streetcar conductor, pursued a career in dance and theatre, as well as editing The Arab Observer and African Review among writing for other African publications. All of which came before her achievements as an author and civil rights activist.
If what I’ve said isn’t enough to show how deserving she is of the title of my favourite feminist, then I’ll finish with a few lines from Still I Rise…
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?
Illustration by Becky Armstrong.