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Remembering Maya Angelou

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The first time I saw "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "The Heart of a Woman" I was in junior high school. A sheltered childhood so the themes of child molestation, teen pregnancy, prostitution, subjects that were turning points to Maya's life went over my head at the time. But even then I knew I was reading something significant, something that would be a lasting testament to growing up black and female through decades of change.

I had the good luck to meet her in the early 1980's. Unfortunately I was completely tongue tied...awestruck. I made the mistake of asking about her children...plural...only remembering later that the other child had been a fantasy. But she answered my gaffe with poise- "No only one, and I'm so proud of him".

To an estranged daughter on her graduation from high school I sent a copy of the book of poems "Phenomenal Woman". Estranged or otherwise, my girl will hear of Maya's passing and think of Mom, if only for a moment. But that poem is one that will continue to influence future generations of young women...as will all her works. Rest in peace Maya, we'll always love you.

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I first read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for a book group in the late '70s or early 80s, and was blown away by it. I bought and read the next four of her memoirs as they came out, but have yet to read the two she wrote this century.

 

At some point I saw her on the TV, reading one of her poems (probably Phenomenal Woman), and just loved both the poem and the delivery. That, and Still I Rise remain among my favourite poems and I can't read them without hearing Maya Angelou's distinctive voice in my head.

Here she is, reading Phenominal Woman

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I have her book, "I know why the caged bird sings" - got it on Kindle. Still can't understand why I'd never heard of her until now. I watched Roots on telly many years ago and must have seen her in that?

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I had no idea she was in Roots! As everyone has said, she was so inspirational and a truly beautiful soul. I'm not sure how to do the linking that meg and grasshopper did. Perhaps someone could link to her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she recited at Clinton's inauguration.

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I had no idea she was in Roots! As everyone has said, she was so inspirational and a truly beautiful soul. I'm not sure how to do the linking that meg and grasshopper did. Perhaps someone could link to her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she recited at Clinton's inauguration.

 

 

On the Pulse of Morning

Edited by lunababymoonchild

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That was something else amazing about her was the way when she read her own poems they came to life. I for the most part don't "do" poetry but seeing her command a stage was just so inspiring. Someone else who had that presence was Gwendolyn Brooks. In the same writers series I saw her speak as well. I'm sorry I didn't manage to worm my way backstage. She passed on a few months later. Maya was a presence with her height and amazing personality, theatrical yet down to earth at the same time.

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poems about racism, feminism, abortion, drug abuse decades before other writers would even venture into such topics. When I saw her she walked to the podium small, graying, in a simple house dress and shoes...but when she began to speak she grew to seven feet tall, both Maya and Gwendolyn were remarkable in their own right. For those who have read Maya's early works there is a photo album still in print. You can see her childhood pictures, Bailey, Uncle Willie and her grandmother, her parents and all the friends she gathered over the years.

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Am almost all the way through "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" and it is a whole new experience for me - I don't think I've read a book written by a "black" American before and it was an amazing experience being invited into the mind of a young black girl.  I know that this is a book which will cause me to ponder about the still prevalent race issue in ways I haven't thought about before. 

Edited by momac

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Guest AvidReader

Am I allowed to say that I have never quite "got" all the fascination with her writing? No disrespect now that she has passed, but her poetry has just never had the impact on me that it has on others. I'm really happy anytime any one is moved by poetry as it is kind of the orphan child of the literary arts, so from that perspective I'm glad for it, and hope that it persuades people to read more poetry - however Maya Angelou's poetry has never 'done it' for me. I suppose this is one of the reasons we are all different and have different tastes - viva 'la difference! 

 

As an example - take her poem Phenomenal Woman - a poem that has inspired many woman to be phenomenal woman - which is great, fantastic, wonderful (no sarcasm) - but to me I can't identify with the kind of woman she is describing. To me, to my reading, to my interpretation, she is reducing woman to a sexualised image that is the very thing she is saying she is not. Either I'm just not getting it, or its mildly hypocritical. So yeah not being model thin and being black can also be sexy but is one or the other form of sexiness all a woman is? 

Edited by AvidReader

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Hi AvidReader. I know what you're saying about the Phenomenal Woman poem - the emphasis does seem to focus on the physical rather than other attributes. I'm new to her writing so haven't read anything else except two poems and her book, which I found quite different and gave a glimpse into the background and attitude of this young black woman and her community.

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I fully realise that at the concept of any one other than the idealised white image of "pretty" portrayed in magazines being attractive and was an is still important to many people, but looking beyond that ... as a woman that isn't all I am, and I certainly don't want men to only think of me and relate to me in that way.

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As an example - take her poem Phenomenal Woman - a poem that has inspired many woman to be phenomenal woman - which is great, fantastic, wonderful (no sarcasm) - but to me I can't identify with the kind of woman she is describing. To me, to my reading, to my interpretation, she is reducing woman to a sexualised image that is the very thing she is saying she is not. Either I'm just not getting it, or its mildly hypocritical. So yeah not being model thin and being black can also be sexy but is one or the other form of sexiness all a woman is? 

 

Of course your entitled to your opinion, but as to this particular poem, I think you are missing the point a little. The way I read it, she is saying that true beauty comes from within. She is proud of being a woman and, regardless of how she (and the majority of women) are compared to the ideal of beauty, she is truly beautiful and her inner beauty is expressed through her body language.

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Not only does every one have their own opinion but their own interpretation too ...

 

but ignoring the physicality of her description of women ... when I read this passage -

 

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.

 

My reaction is 'been there done that, got that T-shirt" and its not all its cracked up to be, it isn't all I am, or even want to be, and because I am more, see myself as more, I am more than a little anti- such a reaction from men. It may give the semblance of power but using sexuality in that way is shallow, dangerous and ultimately counter productive to ending negative stereotypes about women. Thats how I feel any way.

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I find the 'fall down on their knees' hilarious when I think about it - not even my husband was that romantic!

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Guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, AvidReader. :)

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To me Phenomenal Woman has always been the ultimate expression of a woman's internal pride, confidence and self esteem, and an encouragement to other women to take strength from these values. It is those values a woman can hold in her head, even though the men only see the physical attributes. This is why the men "still can't see"- they don't appreciate or value the real woman behind the outside appearance.

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Especially the ..."phenomenal woman that's me". So simple yet so empowering.

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Momac, to send you in the direction of multicultural may I suggest next reading Richard Wright's "Black Boy" and James Baldwin "The Fire Next Time". You don't have to be black or American to be moved by the literature.

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Momac, to send you in the direction of multicultural may I suggest next reading Richard Wright's "Black Boy" and James Baldwin "The Fire Next Time". You don't have to be black or American to be moved by the literature.

 

I have to admit that mostly what I read are thrillers, mysteries and police procedurals, not heavily into literature as such except when there's a BGO book read and apart from Virginia Woolf I've mostly enjoyed the books.  So it's not as if I've been avoiding reading anything multicultural it's just that my reading choices haven't been in that direction.  I was interested when Meg posted a poem of Maya Angelou and then the Phenomenal one was posted too and I heard them read on YouTube that I thought I might like to see what this lady had to say in book form.  It was a totally new experience for me.  I'll have a look at your suggestions, thanks.

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One of my minors in college was African American lit...I could write a book

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