HERoes – Maya Angelou

Content warning: this article mentions rape and childhood sexual abuse

When I mentioned the name Maya Angelou to some friends the other day, I was surprised to receive some blank stares. So when deciding to write about a woman who inspires me, I could think of no one more deserving.

Maya was an African American poet, dancer, actress, singer and civil rights activist. She was born on April 4 1928 but her parents’ marriage broke down when she was three, when she and her older brother were sent to live with her grandmother. Four years later, the children went back to live with her mother, who had a new boyfriend. This man proceeded to sexually abuse and rape Maya when she was just eight years old. She did not speak for almost five years but she found the courage to reclaim her voice one day: “When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say.” She never let anyone silence her again.

Maya’s sheer zest for life, her passion for equality and appreciation for women is the thing that astounds me the most. I had heard the name ‘Maya Angelou’ before, but it wasn’t until my last year of school, when we studied her in English, that I understood what that name meant. The poetry that Angelou created is considered some of the most important, honest and emotive work ever written. ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ reflects upon the slavery and racism that Angelou opposed so ardently. The poem describes a bird which is tied up, wings clipped and imprisoned within its cage, but still sings and dreams of flying away. I think anyone can take something from this poem, whatever their situation is in life. I believe that you cannot read it without feeling uplifted.  

My personal favourite of Angelou’s poetry is ‘Phenomenal Woman’. The poem follows a woman, so utterly comfortable in her own skin, who voices her appreciation for her curves, her sensuality, her skin colour and her life as a woman. As a young woman who has always put herself down for how she looks, how she acts and how she thinks about herself, reading this felt like someone just pushed a mirror in front of me and said: “Look at you.” Whilst I’m still riddled with self-doubt, Maya’s work has undeniably made me look at myself and appreciate who I am as a woman.

I whole-heartedly believe that everyone should read Maya Angelou: white, black, mixed race, LGBTQ+, straight, old, young. Everyone should know about Maya Angelou and what an incredible woman she was.

“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.” – Maya Angelou

[Sarah Montgomery – she/her – @sarah_montyx]

[Image Credit: flickr/Rusty Darbonne]

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