Maya Angelou: A Phenomenal Woman with a Caribbean Connection

Dr. Maya Angelou, speaking at The Carolina Theater, Greensboro, North Carolina, September, 2008. Image by Talbot Troy, used under a CC license.

Dr. Maya Angelou, speaking at The Carolina Theater, Greensboro, North Carolina, September, 2008. Image by Talbot Troy, used under a CC license.

Maya Angelou has been noticeably written and tweeted about since her death on May 28. Her passing resonates quite deeply in the Caribbean – and not only because of the potency of her words – the author also had West Indian roots (her maternal grandfather was Trinidadian). Regional bloggers have been processing their grief over the loss by sharing what her life and writing meant to them.

In honour of Angelou's Caribbean connections, Repeating Islands republished a post which originally appeared in Slate magazine, detailing the author's stint as a singer, when she recorded her first and only album, entitled Miss Calypso.

Some bloggers were not even aware of Angelou's West Indian ancestry until her death. What's the idea? said as much in her post, The dream and hope of the slave:

Maya Angelou lived a long, lovely life, full of daring, accomplishment and acclaim. I did not know that her grandfather was a Trinidadian.

Still I Rise was the first poem in my under-educated literary life that moved me with its direct relevance to my own life as a descendant of enslaved peoples and perhaps more so, because it so expressed the exuberant defiance which black women need (ed) to leap over sexism and marginalisation.

Roberta, the blogger, went on to quote excerpts of the poem, saying:

It is a poem of such triumph ‘Out of history’s shame, I Rise…’

Now, I am thinking of the last line, ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave’ as the region struggles with inequalities and with discrimination, especially against the LGBT community. That we would wish to perpetuate laws that make criminals of people who love other people of their own sex seems far enough away from the dream of emancipation. Can we not remember that slavery was also justified in the name of religion?

On Facebook, Nicholas Laughlin echoed the same sentiment, referring to a statement the author had made five years ago:

‘To love someone takes a lot of courage,’ she said. ‘So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, “I forbid you from loving this person?”‘

–Maya Angelou, interviewed by the New York Times, May 2009

Since everybody with a pulse is rushing to memorialise Maya Angelou today, and with the Bain affair still weighing heavy on my mind, it seems a good moment to recall her thoughts on a question of justice the Caribbean is struggling with.

What's the idea? also viewed Angelou's advice as incredibly relevant when it comes to the global issue of violence against women and girls:

In her Ode to the UN, Maya Angelou ends with these words:

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Some netizens, especially on Twitter and Facebook, reposted quotes by Angelou that resonated with them. Trinidadian blogger Kris Rampersad bade Angelou a simple farewell:

Thank you for sharing your mind and emotions and the spirit and the power with us Maya Angelou. So many women drew energy from you…

Raquel Cepeda, a US-born writer with Dominican roots, recounted the one occasion she literally ran into Maya Angelou:

Once, when I was about 19 or 20, I darted past Bloomingdale’s in New York, running late to something—I forget—and literally ran into a large, imposing figure walking out of the shop as I sprinted by. I felt as if I had ran into a brick wall. As I stood there in a daze, rubbing my nose, I heard this majestic voice say every-so-slowly, ‘Child, slow down. Where on earth could be more important than being with your self right now?’ My knees started to wobble when I realized this person was Maya Angelou. She glided off, in that regal way of hers, before I could fix my lips to apologize. And that’s why there’s a nod to her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I had just read around that time in the title of my book Bird of Paradise… I wish I could have told her that in person, but alas, I never ran into her again.

And Still I Rise, a St. Vincent and the Grenadines-based blog that was named after one of Angelou's poems, honoured her this way:

We first met in the pages of ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ and from that moment you became one of my heroines…You taught me so much by your words both written and spoken on my place in history, the beauty of my womanhood and the spirit that rises despite the obstacles. Thank you, Thank you, phenomenal woman you!

The blogger, like many others, also quoted one of Angelou's most stirring poems, ‘When Great Trees Fall’:

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Trinidadian diaspora blogger Afrobella felt like “[her] heart was being squeezed in a fist” when she learned, from her Facebook feed no less, of Angelou's death. She explained that she had been asked to write a piece on the author's legacy for a Trinidad and Tobago daily:

In that piece I compared Maya to Mount Rushmore or the Giant Sequoia trees, like the ancient leatherback turtles that return to Trinidad’s beaches to nest, like Trinidad’s most popular beach, Maracas. I mean that in the sense that Maya Angelou seemed to belong to us, she seemed ancient and eternal. It’s impossible to imagine her not here to dispense wisdom, to recite a poem that rattles our hears and resonates in our spirits. We never thought she’d go away.

To Afrobella, the impact of Angelou's life was so staggering, “it [was] easy to feel dizzy and overwhelmed:

So instead of going broad and speaking about her in grandiose and sweeping terms, I want to get very specific and focus on one particular way that Maya Angelou touched me. Her poem, Phenomenal Woman, helped to change my life.

For someone in my age bracket — there never was a time before Phenomenal Woman. For us, there was never a time when there were these indelible, unforgettable, undeniable words intended to uplift, celebrate and triumphantly proclaim that we are beyond beautiful, we are worthy of desire and admiration from ourselves as well as others. That it isn’t just about how we’re built, it’s about who we are and how we carry ourselves in the world.

In that poem Maya defined herself, but she also helped to define a generation to come. Black women around the world grew up knowing those words, knowing that we too were or at least could be phenomenal women.

We who are 35 or younger, never knew a time when Maya Angelou’s words weren’t there to lift us up. We were blessed to be born into a world where she was a constant.

The blogger, Patrice Grell-Yursik, ended her tribute by quoting the poet herself:

In her own words, ‘when a poet dies something hopeful in the national psyche disappears.’ I know I’m not the only one who’s already feeling the void.

Thank you, Maya Angelou. Thank you for speaking for us. Thank you for sharing with us. Thank you for being with us for as long as you were able. Thank you for everything you gave to us, you gave the world so, so much. Thank you for teaching us, for shaping us and for leaving us a legacy to live up to.

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