A Woman, Phenomenally: What Maya Angelou Taught Me
There’s an accusation, especially recently in our culture, about people who fight for social justice. We’re accused of perpetuating a victim mentality. People mistake our stories and our experiences for manifestations of victimhood. We’re told not to wallow. We’re told to rise above, and in many cases, to put aside and forget our experiences . . . almost as if they don’t matter at all.
In times when I am accused of these things, I like to remember Maya Angelou.
I first read “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” when I was a teenager. And at the time, though I loved the poem’s flowing rhythm, the clever subtle rhyming, and the beauty of the idea of a free bird and a caged bird, I didn’t really understand what Dr. Angelou meant by this poem until last night. I didn’t realize that when the caged bird sings of freedom, it can mean a myriad of things – and it can be misunderstood and twisted into something it’s not, just as quickly.
Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson, passed away yesterday at the age of 86. A writing inspiration to many, she left behind a number of beautiful quotes, wonderful poems, and powerful examples of prose. A civil rights activist, a singer, a writer, a mother – Dr. Angelou was many things, and she never backed down not only from sharing her experiences, but using them to empower herself and others. She was a sex worker. She was a rape survivor. She literally couldn’t speak for years. And then she found her voice – and she never stopped standing up for what’s right, even at the cost of her own dignity and sense of self.
It’s easy for me to get tired. To feel like I’m wrong for speaking out, that I just don’t want to fight and educate any more, that I’m sick of being told what an awful person I am for daring to point out injustice in society. And I admit that it’s easy to fall into a victim mentality. It’s easy to think that the world is against me without remembering why I decided to speak out in the first place.
The reason why I speak up and I keep writing is because in my heart, I know the only way to change the world is to keep using the voice and words I was given to do it. I’ve been accused, as a feminist, of “letting others do the dirty work for me”. I’ve been accused of lying, of twisting facts, of generalizing, of being sexist against men, of being a narcissistic blogger, even. And though I know I’ve never done those things intentionally, the fact that people are speaking out against my words means that they’re resonating. They’re getting out there, for good or bad.
Dr. Angelou said, memorably,
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
In the end, if I have changed anyone’s mind, made them think, made them recognize the injustices in the world and want to fight against them, then I have done what I set out to do. I didn’t set out to be adored and adulated for the things that I have said. I set out to bring awareness to issues affecting the marginalized in our society – and change it for the better.
One thing I admire greatly about Dr. Maya Angelou was her unshakeable confidence in herself. She refused to be a victim – instead, she made it clear that she was a survivor. Her poem, “Phenomenal Woman”, is one of my favourites. It describes a woman so fully in love with who she is that she turns heads and attracts friends and lovers without even trying. It’s an inspiration to me, as someone who has often felt unpretty and unloveable, because in the end, the perception you present to the world is a direct reflection of who you are inside.
I try to remember to admire the things I love about myself, to flirt if I want to, to smile for no reason at all. I remember that, like Dr. Angelou said, “I have a certain way of being in this world, and I shall not, I shall not be moved.” I remember that in the end, always in the end, it’s myself I answer to at the end of the day. I have to be comfortable with the work I have done. I have to feel right with the things I have said, the causes I have fought for. And I have to consider if I have been a good ally to those whose experiences I don’t share, and a good voice for the experiences I do.
Dr. Angelou, you shaped me as an activist and a writer. You gave me a standard to rise to, a standard I will never reach, but I will keep trying. Your beautiful words, your beautiful face, your amazingly powerful voice – I miss it and you’ve been gone one day. I don’t pretend that I understand anything you went through. But you were, and are, a hero for all people. You are missed. I am grateful for what you taught me, and what I still have to learn from you.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trillOf things unknown, but longed for stillAnd his tune is heard on the distant hillFor the caged bird sings of freedom.- Maya Angelou
Until the cages spring open, and the birds can fly on the back of the wind, they will sing of freedom. And so shall I continue to do – without weakness, without victimization, without abandon, and without fear.
For the caged bird sings of freedom, and now, she's free.