Happy 90th Birthday, Maya Angelou
By: Sophie Austin
National Poetry Month marks the 90th birthday of one of the art form’s greatest contributors:
Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis. Her story is one of resiliency, strength and beauty. During her lifetime, she allowed us to view that story through her poetry. Let’s take a look at her most impactful literary moments:
In 1969, Angelou released her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which touches on themes of racism, poverty and identity. Black Enterprise ranked it her biggest “popular work” and a “must-read.”
Angelou captured both mature and childlike topics in her poetry. In “Harlem Hopscotch,” she contrasts the playing of a classic summer childhood game with the reality of poverty that the narrator is experiencing. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates describes Angelou’s childhood as one of “poverty and abuse.”
And Still I Rise, one of Angelou’s poetry books, was released in 1978. The book contains two of her most famous poems, “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise”. In “Still I Rise,” Angelou calls herself “the dream and the hope of the slave” and promises despite whatever obstacles she faces, she will “rise” and “rise” and “rise” again.
Angelou’s poetry has directly inspired other forms of art. Her poem “Africa”, in which she personifies the continent as a complex and emotive woman, was remixed into a jazz song. Vocals of Angelou reciting poetry were also remixed into an entire album entitled Caged Bird Songs.
Former President Barack Obama awarded Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Obama said that throughout her career, Angelou had offered to the world “a sense of compassion” and “an ability to love” while inspiring “countless others who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives.”
Angelou states why she is a “phenomenal woman” in the opening stanza of one of her most recognizable poems:
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Edited by Danielle Germain