Lauded poet and author Maya Angelou turns 84 years young today, and her influence continues to impact the black community. Her work includes six autobiographies, five books of essays, and several plays and volumes of poetry. She’s written about her past as a victim of sexual abuse as a prostitute, as well as her past as a Civil Rights Movement coordinator and journalist in Africa during the revolutions of the 1960s. She’s been granted over 30 honorary doctoral degrees, too many awards to try counting, and the honor of reciting her poetry at Bill Clinton’s Presidential inauguration. This woman has lived, and continues to live, the kind of full life that the rest of us can only hope for; thanks to the attention to the human spirit and importance of hope that Maya Angelou has always built into her poetry, the rest of us have a means for doing so.
The autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the poem “And Still I Rise” were my first doses of Angelou’s work. Even today, a few lines from that poem serve as a reminder to me that the world’s perception of black womanhood has its universal nuances:
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.
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.
Watch Maya Angelou recite the piece in its entirety, with a special disclaimer about human nature at the opening.