A Phenomenal Woman Indeed
I lost a dear friend last week and I still haven’t honestly come to terms with her departure yet. I feel quite lost without her. But instead of mulling over the passing, I’d like share with you my relationship with her and the impact she has had on me.
I first met my friend as a bright-eyed and restless young student in a sleepy high school English class in East Texas. I raised my hand in class to read the next stanza of this one particular poem and almost instantaneously felt the images of the words materialize in my mind. My then common high school stuttering-self stammered through each verse, until finally I finished the poem with no hesitation and more confidence than my 14 year old self could comprehend, “I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / that’s me.”
At the time, I would have never been able to comprehend the impact Maya Angelou would have on me. Back then, all I knew were outdated textbooks, small town cafeteria gossip, and any tidbits of information I overheard from my family. But me? Phenomenal? I was a nobody. The world was so small and so was I. That was all I knew and I didn’t question it. I could have never imagined how much her words would liberate me from the so-called normality of race and gender in society, challenge my internalized prejudices, and inspire me to be confident, courageous, sexy and kind. Most importantly I would have never imagined that her words would teach me that I do matter. I would have never imagined, but now, as the world says goodbye to a remarkable woman, it is clear. Dr. Maya Angelou taught me how to be a phenomenal woman.
Maya Angelou was a prolific author and poet who stood as a voice for several generations amongst times of brutal racism, discrimination and hatred. She documented our struggles, chronicled our frustrations and joys, as we moved throughout the decades from important orators from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama. Angelou herself was also a powerful speaker, educator, dancer, singer, and activist. She publicly poured aspects of the personal life onto paper through her highly proclaimed autobiography, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings. She acted as a spokesperson for black people, women and even more broadly, humanity. She wrote about universal themes and used her personal narrative to examine the experience of the individual with an emphasis on hardship, oppression, and loss.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Past these themes, she also emphasizes the transformation of oneself, social justice, and the importance of faith. She emerged from her long and sorrowful journey into a wise, calm and self-assured soul. By using her past struggles to transform herself she in turn gifted us with faith so that we could also transform ourselves.
But what always stayed with me was that much of her rhetoric wasn’t even about race. She weaved her words in a way that could make someone find the link in any situation. Many times in my life, I have found myself stuck at a brick wall that stands in the way of my aspirations. And I’m suffocated by indecision and anxiety. All the days and weeks of well-deserved self-acceptance, positive reinforcement and development get thwarted and I’m trapped in an iron cage of self-loathing with no sign of light to lead me out. But then Maya comes in, with her wisdom and her prose and tells me she knew why I sing.
She is a constant reminder to be phenomenal, and to “dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs.” Maya Angelou taught us that her stories mattered, deserved to be heard and so do mine. Through the effect of her actions during her long, active life, I am inspired to continue trying and thriving.
Even after her death on May 28, 2014, I don’t believe that she’s gone. Maya has immortalized herself in a way that many artists have done for centuries. She will continue to touch people through her books, poetry and essays. She has definitely lived a full life and will continue to be the mentor, friend, and inner voice for people just like me. This to me makes her a phenomenal woman indeed.
Below I’ve attached a blues rendition of Maya’s Poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” sung by Ruthie Foster. I hope you enjoy it.
Until next time everyone.
Ashley M. Thomas
“Leave your mark, she was saying. That’s the only responsibility that comes with being”
Ruthie Foster: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkYh2BYONms