When celebrated writer, performer and activist Maya Angelou passed away in 2014, her death was mourned around the world. Long-time admirers, including Oprah Winfrey and former President Bill Clinton spoke at her memorial service, and then-First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a deeply personal and emotional eulogy.
Obama remembered the first time she read Angelou’s iconic poem, “Phenomenal Woman” and the profound influence it had on her life and her perceptions of herself as a young Black woman, the Telegraph,1 reported.
“Her words were clever and sassy, they were powerful, and sexual, and boastful,” Obama said. “And in that one singular poem Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of Black women and graced us with an anthem for all women.”
The details of Angelou’s troubled childhood and the struggles and triumphs of her life into adulthood are chronicled in her many memoirs. Most famously, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings detailed the instability, abuse and violence she suffered in her early youth, and her teenage years as an unwed mother and sex worker who eventually found success as a performer.
Angelou overcame unthinkable hardships, going on to sing, act, dance and direct; work as an organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; win three Grammy Awards; receive nominations for a Tony and a Pulitzer; be appointed to two Presidential committees; serve as a distinguished professor for 30 years at Wake Forest University, North Carolina; and publish several acclaimed autobiographical works and volumes of poetry.
And these are just some of the highlights from Angelou’s “phenomenal” career.
Inspired by Michelle Obama’s testament to the extraordinary impact of “Phenomenal Woman,” and in honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll explore the ways Angelou empowered and revolutionized the image of Black women through poetry, going on to become one of America’s best-loved poets.
"The [young] Black female…is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power," Angelou wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.2 "The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence."
“Phenomenal Woman” 3 is a spellbinding ode to that formidable character. The poem was published in 1978, a frustrating time when many African American women felt they’d been ignored and left behind by the Black power and women’s movements earlier in the decade. But for Angelou, liberation came from within, and she proudly conjured up her own power and appeal as a Black woman.
The poem begins “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies./I’m not cute or built to a fashion model’s size…” and goes on to explain in each stanza the mysterious allure that has men swarming around, like “a hive of honey bees:”
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman.
If you are not familiar with the poem, the best introduction is to hear it spoken and sung in Angelou’s voice. She gave a rousing recitation in a 1978 episode of Hey Brother,4 along with an interview where she spoke about what motivated her: “I am alive,” she told the host. “That in itself is an inspiration.”
When asked if she considered herself successful, Angelou candidly answered that she did not. As for many artists and writers, perfect self-expression eluded her. “Well, to be successful for me,” she explained, “I would have to have written the things I wanted to write and I've never been able to say exactly what I mean. I have come closer few times. I've missed more times.”
But, she added, she would “be dead” if she ever got it just right. Such success would be an ending. What kept her going was the process of chasing success, of trying “to say exactly what I mean about myself and life as I see it.”
“We are a species in process,” Angelou said. “Life is in process.”
That same year, in 1978, Angelou released another iconic poem that subverted subjugation of Black women: “Still I Rise5.”
Upon publication of two anthologies in 1994 (The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou and Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women), Sandra Cookson’s review in World Literature Today6 described “Still I Rise” as being “about the survival of Black women despite every kind of humiliation….it celebrates Black women while simultaneously challenging the stereotypes to which America has subjected them since the days of slavery.”
Cookson notes the “in-your-face tone” of the poet’s defiant self-possession as Angelou demands: "Does my sassiness upset you?" "Does my haughtiness offend you?" "Does my sexiness upset you?” until the poem’s powerful conclusion:
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
In a 1992 interview with Essence7 magazine, Angelou spoke about the importance of defining one’s own selfhood and claiming one’s own liberation, especially for Black women. “Grace has to do with one's deliberate, chosen way of being in this world,” she said. “For a Black woman, the choice is imperative because the larger society, and quite often Black men and women, see her in a negative light. This so threatens her being that unless she determines who she is and how she sees herself, she will die.”
She elaborated on the value of being a person who only had to answer to herself and the importance of being someone she was proud to be. For her, pride wasn’t about arrogance, but the antithesis of shame. Angelou told the interviewer:
To those who would try to diminish me, I say you cannot cripple my spirit. You cannot do that, it is not yours to cripple. I alone am responsible to my God for my spirit. Not you, unless I give it to you. And I would be a fool. That is all I've got...I have nothing but my spirit, and I will not allow anyone to have or trample on it.
In 1993, Angelou achieved another unique milestone in her career. She inspired a love of poetry in the American public and cinched her reputation as poet of the people when, at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, she read a poem she had written for the occasion. It was the first time since Robert Frost appeared at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 that a poet was invited to participate in such an event.
Leading up to this inauguration, Angelou spoke to Irvin Molotsky of The New York Times8 who inquired if racial harmony would factor into the poem Angelou was writing. "I'm sure it will," she said. "It will be about the nation.”
For Angelou, this meant weaving African American experience into the fabric of American identity. "Sometimes I'm almost brought to tears,” she explained, “when I wonder what if all the vitality and insouciance and love of life of Black America were openly included in the national psyche?"
The poem she wrote, “On the Pulse of Morning8,” echoed the theme of dignity found in so many of her works, as she called upon Americans of every race, ethnicity, class and religion to stand up and accept responsibility for the creation of a new, optimistic vision of the future, built upon lessons learned from the “wrenching pain” of the past. The poem concludes:
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
In The American Poetry Review,9 Jason Schneiderman lauded the piece. “I spend a lot of my time explaining why I love certain poems,” he wrote, “but the best poems catch you off guard. The best art simply floors you, and that ‘Good morning’ always floors me… the closing is almost like those Beach Boys harmonies that are so sweet they hurt more than cacophony; the plain-spoken turns into a quotation of itself, unmooring the simplicity of the simple.”
A printed version of the poem hit the bestseller lists and her recording of the poem received a Grammy Award. “On the Pulse of Morning” sealed Angelou’s position as a poet of the American people.