In light of International Women’s Day, we recommend that you read some of the greatest poems collected in a book And Still I Rise written by Maya Angelou, an amazing woman with an incredible life story.
Reading through these poems should remind us all that we need to work on gender equality every day, not just celebrate the freedoms already won on one particular day (although that is important, too).
Maya Angelou has often been referred to as the black woman’s poet laureate since her poetry focuses on racial inequality and the never-ending problems of oppressed African Americans in racist environments.
Besides writing of racial inequality, Angelou wrote many empowering poems about women and their rights; she wrote about the hypocrisy of the world, and injustice, but also about love and nature, combined with autobiographical elements – such as the poem Caged bird, in which Angelou described the difficult emotional state in which she found herself after being raped as a little girl.
One of Angelou’s most recognizable poems is one about the power of women titled Phenomenal Woman. In this poem, Angelou speaks out about the dignity of being a woman, about self-pride and female grace. It is about sex appeal, about the inner power that radiates through in an inexplicable way. This kind of strength has nothing to do with a dress size or other beauty standards that are imposed on women: it has a deeper meaning, as it is connected to one’s identity. A woman is therefore not only beautiful (as beautiful is something that is usually linked to outer beauty), but also phenomenal:
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
In the poem titled Equality, Angelou creates a fictional dialogue, which is rather characteristic of her poetry. Addressing someone with a simple you, she confronts the one who’s denying her freedom and equality, which is clearly the society she lives in and its values. It is about double standards when it comes to men’s and women’s rights, and there is racial inequality in the subtext, too:
You do own to hear me faintly
as a whisper out of range,
while my drums beat out the message
and the rhythms never change.
There is also a very powerful chorus in the poem that underlines the point of Angelou’s fight: she is fighting not just for herself as an individual – but she stands as a representative of a wider collective, both women and African-Americans:
Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.
In the poem Woman Work, we read about what one single woman does for her family and for society, but unfortunately – it goes unnoticed. The woman also gives birth to a new life: she is therefore deeply connected to nature and should be respected accordingly. The loneliness of her position is softened by the presence of nature and its forces, they keep her company until she can rest again:
Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.
Another interesting piece is a poem in prose, In All Ways A Woman. Here, Angelou explains the complexity of being a woman in terms of what society expects from her. Being called a lady when she was young, Angelou questions the meaning of this attribute and how the role of a woman is actually being confined within an imposed frame, with just one simple word. Being a woman in today’s world requires warrior skills:
The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough. She must have convinced herself, or be in the unending process of convincing herself, that she, her values, and her choices are important. In a time and world where males hold sway and control, the pressure upon women to yield their rights-of-way is tremendous. And it is under those very circumstances that the woman’s toughness must be in evidence.
In another powerful poem, Our Grandmothers, Angelou speaks about the horrors slavery, but in a specific way: she gives a face to it and makes it personal. She shows what slavery did to a particular person, a person of human flesh – one African-American woman. She was treated as an object and as property, instead of a human being.
Although they have tried to strip her of her identity and numb her completely by imposing their power on her, this amazing woman has been broken but never defeated. An amazing will to fight injustice remains unbroken, and this woman pledges to persist. But the future generation must do the same:
She heard the names,
swirling ribbons in the wind of history:
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in this world,
and I shall not, I shall not be moved.
The strength of this woman, after all the humiliation she endured, is breathtaking. Our Grandmothers is a true hymn and an homage to Angelou’s ancestors, specifically the female ones who suffered doubly, being punished for being African-Americans and for being women.
A poem titled Son to Mother repositions the role of men and what is identified as manly behavior. According to the poem, men are the ones who too often turn to violence instead of reasoning out problems. A man who refuses to fit into this description is mocked by other men as a momma’s boy. He lives his life the way his mother raised him to: honorable, without causing wars or imposing his power on others. Mother, as a female authority and the one who gave her son the gift of life, is shown here as a peace advocate. Her son asks her:
say you took my manhood,
Come sit on my lap
and tell me,
what do you want me to say
to them, just
before I annihilate
their ignorance ?
These are just some of the poems in which Maya Angelou expresses her rebellion against the world. They can serve as reminders for all of us that we should always take a part, no matter how small it is, in the fight for equality.
Angelou’s life path was pretty amazing: she was a professional dancer, prostitute, madam, lecturer, singer, editor, poet, and writer. She was extremely intelligent and lived her life to the fullest and endured through many hard times and several tragedies.
She hated hypocrisy and fought against ignorance, as it was and is the main reason for violence and inequality. If we had to describe Angelou’s life and work in just two words, it would most certainly be – strong and unapologetic.
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