Phenomenal Woman

Peg A. Keller


When I was about 11, we visited my grandfather and grandmother in Boston for two weeks. Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings somehow ended up coming home with me. I'm pretty sure I stole them from the teenage girl who lived across the street, but I honestly don't remember. What I do remember is making up songs based on both books, (specifically “Blues Ain't No Mockingbird,” from Gorilla)—mournful blues songs that I sung in the shower and nowhere else.

I was an adult before I understood that the writer in Caged Bird was not a teenage girl when she wrote the book. By the time I was 13, I felt a sense of urgency to write my memoir before I got older than Maya.

It would take a few more years and reading The Color Purple before I fully understood Caged Bird, which probably makes no sense, but 11 was too young to be reading such a heavy book.

I identified with these young black girls, more so than with Ramona or even most of Judy Blume's narrators (except Blubber). These stories said what no other stories with young narrators had: incest and childhood sexual abuse are real and bad and the victim is a victim. They were paramount in my ability to finally speak out and get therapy.

So, reading that Maya Angelou died today brought me a real sense of grief. She grew to be larger than life and it's hard to imagine her now as that little girl traveling. She was a poet and a prostitute, a fry cook. She was a journalist and a film director. She worked with Martin Luther King and she helped inaugurate presidents.
I should have taken the time to write her a letter, thanking her.

I think I'll write one soon to Alice Walker.

Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

-- Maya Angelou

Peg A Keller is a writer from St Louis who currently lives in Iowa.