When celebrated poet, writer, activist, teacher Maya Angelou died on May 28th 2014, the literary world paused; to mourn a loss while remembering what they had gained through her; to share their personal sense of sorrow via social media; to recall that poem or phrase or exact moment of hearing her speak when a spark ignited within them. What was it about this woman that touched so many people, regardless of their celebrity qualification, social status and citizenship?
Was it because she had not just survived but thrived despite the hardships life had thrown at her? Abandoned by her parents, raped by her mother’s boyfriend, she was homeless and became a teen mother. Maya Angelou never went to college yet she received more than thirty honorary degrees and went on to teach American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Perhaps then, it was this hope against hope that we too would ultimately find our place in the world if we just believed in ourselves and kept at it.
The first time I had the good fortune to hear Maya Angelou I was a freshman in an American college, battling issues of body image, wanting to talk of things which no one in my home country would give me space to talk about, cringing in my skin, tugging at my tightly wound-up thoughts. A friend insisted I go with her, promising only that Dr Angelou was ‘phenomenal’. I conceded because I knew my Bengali timidity was no match to my American friend’s tenacity.
It was a big hall and people were buzzing with excitement. Standing room only. I saw her from afar with mild curiosity. Everyone jostled to get a little bit closer to her. I had neither the inclination nor the fortitude to do so. Then, she started speaking. She spoke of fighting against slavery, racism, gender bias and somewhere within me I heard the tentative clanging of shackles I didn’t know existed. She broke into poetry:
The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of things unknown
But longed for still
I knew of this fearful trill. I had heard it before but refused to acknowledge it. Muting it had been an easier option. She was talking of slavery of course, but to me it felt like she was talking about all the times I had heard what girls should or should not do in our conservative society. Or at least, the ‘good’ girls.
And then she started on about the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the stride of her step, the curl of her lips, the fire in her eyes, the flash of her teeth, the swing in her waist, the joy in her feet. My head started reeling and I nervously ran my tongue over my asymmetrical teeth. My thick glasses fogged near the edges as they were wont to do when my face got sweaty.
People around me seemed to have stopped breathing, their gazes fixed on Dr Angelou. Her voice carried clearly over the hall as she proudly, poetically talked about the arch of her back, the sun of her smile, the ride of her breasts (gasp!) and the grace of her style. Her words were powerful but what was more engaging was her tone, her certainty of truth, her assurance that it was okay to be proud of who we were, as we were. To be the sum of us, notwithstanding the negatives.
It was the very last stanza that drove this point home:
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud
In my first year at a liberal arts, all-women’s college, I had not always reacted positively to the ultra-feminist, almost militant attitude in some of my peers. Whereas my focus had been more on basic equality issues like wages, career choices, attire, I chanced upon women who were screaming about how “HIStory” needed to be renamed “HERstory”; that God was a She; and how we shouldn’t shave our legs or underarms because we were catering to a patriarchal society.
“But…I don’t like hairy legs or underarms,” I pointed out.
“Don’t be silly!” they said. “This is about castration not equation,” they said.
“But I like men in my society. I like my father, my brother, my male friends, my first love, my first heartbreak. I’m eager to meet my ultimate love.”
They didn’t hear me. Voices raised in outrage, it seemed they had no interest in hearing my ideas about how to work within a society. With a ‘hey hey’ and a ‘ho ho’ (the chant that we all rhymed to at our endless processions of protest) they marched off.
Finally, here was Dr Angelou across a sea of mesmerised faces validating that we didn’t have to shout, jump about or talk real loud in order to be heard. That’s when I realised that in order to be phenomenal, a woman simply had to be herself. It was that moment that she became my hero. Because of the courage she had to be herself. And the courage she gave me to love myself.
Many years later, this is why I in my tiny corner in Dhaka, Bangladesh mourn the loss of someone who breathed her last in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her sassiness made me rise, “Just like moons and like suns; With the certainty of tides.” Her sexiness made me, “Dance like I’ve got diamonds; At the meeting of my thighs”. She carried a bit of us through her brave words – encouraging us to express ourselves, and now we carry a bit of her by fulfilling our undeniable need to be heard.
An abridged version of this article was originally published in the Saturday Literary Review.