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Maya Angelou: The Phenomenal Woman Who Helped Shape Me

For someone as beloved and prominent as Maya Angelou, it’s amazing that her depictions of childhood loneliness are what made her so dear to me. I saw the imagination, dreams and fear within the image of the young, mute version of Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and found the kindred spirit of all young female writers.

The bedroom of a young girl is an almost sacred creative space. Punk feminist icon Kathleen Hanna encouraged girls of the 1990s to make demo tapes and fanzines at home where no one could hurt them or silence them or judge them for what they were wearing.

I was raised as the only child of older parents. So much of my childhood happened in my head, alone, with only my imagination. I made cutout cities out of construction paper and dreamed of the faraway places in my National Geographic magazines. I read everything I could get my hands on and was especially drawn to fantasy novels where ultimate dichotomies of good and evil played out in parallel universes with magical creatures.

I quickly found my voice and in my desperation to be heard would frantically and dizzily describe all the worlds that had previously been stored only in my head to any poor soul I came into contact with.

This eagerness to be heard eventually led me to the unapologetic and gutsy icons of feminism. The foul-mouthed female musicians, braless protestors, and bold social critics of the patriarchy embodied everything I thought I wasn’t allowed to be. They were loud and self-assured. I will always love them.

When I found Angelou I was brought back to myself as a child, filling blank books with dreams in the quiet of my bedroom. Angelou, of course, eventually found her voice as well.

While Hanna is a role model to me for her fearless energy to scream about injustice on stage, Angelou has always impressed me with her composure, kindness and optimism.

How did she do it? Angelou was an advocate for civil rights, but in the face of injustice she expressed confidence, hope and unity.

“Still I Rise” is not an angry poem.

It doesn’t threaten. Angelou, with her background in jazz and spoken word, performed the poem like a wise, ethereal godmother giving a pep talk. There are those in this world who shoot you with their words, kill you with their hatefulness, and cut you with their eyes; Angelou doesn’t deny it. But the poem isn’t about those who inflict pain, but about her strength – our strength.

Angelou reminded me that a woman could be strong and full of love at the same time. When the world has hurt me in the past, my instinct has been to recoil like a snake with resentment rattling inside. Angelou stepped forth into the light to meet her naysayers with a smile.

There was nothing divisive about Angelou. She was practically a Jungian archetype of the mother. In her final years she wrote cookbooks to encourage Americans to return to the dinner table and eat with their families. Listening to her talk about the recipes on NPR further convinced me that she really loved all of us.

Twitter allowed Angelou to continue to share her incredible wisdom with the world up until the days before she died. Even through such a modern platform of social media her words read like a daily devotional. You take your time with Angelou’s words whether they appear in a novel or in 140 characters or less.

When you are a writer there is a bittersweet feeling that accompanies the act of reading truly great writing. Angelou’s words have always reignited the respect and passion I have for the written word; she reminds me of the power held in prose. She also defies my idea of human limitation and I know that few people will ever soar to the height of her ability.

Her words are part of some of the greatest prose ever to be written in American history, and they were written by a black woman with no formal education beyond the age of 17.

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 Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.

The loss of Angelou has left a hole in my heart. It always comforted me to know that this phenomenal woman lived just 30 minutes away from where I grew up. I know that I’ll be visiting Angelou over the next several weeks through the written work she left behind. She taught me so much. I want to honor her memory. I want to be my own woman, phenomenally. !

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