Phenomenal Woman: Remembering Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, the celebrated poet, playwright, professor, memoirist, historian, director, screenwriter, activist, and actress, passed away at 86 on Wednesday, May 28. As much as she is especially known for her poetry and memoir books, her five decade-plus career in several artistic disciplines further explains her towering stature. This week L.A. Letters salutes the legacy of Maya Angelou.

Born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, her rocky childhood moved her between Missouri, Arkansas and eventually to San Francisco. It was in San Francisco during the 1950s as a dancer, singer, and actress that she adopted the name Maya Angelou. Her life up to age 17 is described in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," her breakout book from 1969. By the time she wrote "I Know Why," she had already led a full life that included having met and been friends with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Billie Holiday. Her lengthy resume is too extensive to list here; among countless awards, she was also Bill Clinton's inaugural poet in 1993 -- the first poet to recite at presidential inauguration since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's in 1961.

Malcolm X and Maya Angelous in Ghana, West Africa. 1964 | Photo: Courtesy of mayaangelou.com


In her early years, she worked on a number of theater productions, moving on to film and television years later. Angelou lived in L.A. for a short stint in the 1960s, right around the time of the Watts Riots in 1965. She briefly writes about her observations of the 1965 Watts Riots in her 2002 memoir, "A Song Flung Up to Heaven." This book was the sixth installment of her serial autobiography series, which began with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Most recently in 2013, the seventh edition of this series, "Mom & Me & Mom," was published just before her 85th birthday.

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In addition to the seven installments of her memoirs, Angelou has also penned several plays and screenplays, a few books of essays, and multiple books of poetry. The day after she died, I spoke with Eric Priestley, one of the founding members of the Watts Writers Workshop. Priestley told me that he thought "Gather Together in My Name" from 1974, the second memoir in the series, was her best work. He said:

The scene in Stamps, Arkansas at the store with the dress and after she returns to her grandmother's house and is slapped because she has talked back to 'white people' and by so doing placed herself and the entire family in grave danger; It is a part of the Jim Crow South that few of today's youth will know or even understand. It is full of so much subtle horror, fear, contempt, irony and heavy drama that it brought tears to my eyes. It demonstrates what Dr. Joy Degruy means in her theory of Post-Traumatic-Slavery Syndrome. The only other literature that comes close to it is a scene in 'Raisin in the Sun.'

Dr. Maya Angelou in San Francisco at the time of the publication of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. 1970 | Photo: mayangelou.com"Gather Together in My Name" addresses the years when she was 17 to 19. She travels to L.A. briefly in this work, and spends much of the narrative in San Francisco, with a return trip to Arkansas. These years were critical in her rite of passage. During this time, she works in night clubs, has failed romances, and raises a child as a single mother, all the while still only 19. Her transformation is revealed as the book goes on. She writes, "I had written a juicy melodrama in which I was to be the star. Pathetic, poignant, isolated. I planned to drift out of the wings, a little girl martyr. It just so happened that life took my script away and upstaged me." The prevailing theme of the book is her own optimism and belief in herself in spite of all the odds. Even though she details disappointment after disappointment, the resilience embodied by her character explains why so many have found redemption in her work. Near the close of "Gather Together" she reflects on her rollercoaster journey in the other side of San Francisco in her early adulthood. She writes, "The life of the underworld was truly a rat race, and most of its inhabitants scurried like rodents in the sewers and the gutters of the world. I had walked the precipice and seen it all; and at the critical moment, one man's generosity pushed me safely from the edge."

There are many similar moments throughout her work. Literary historians have noted that Angelou's early precedent paved the way for other women of color to write their stories in the same candid fashion as Angelou. Angelou has also had her share of critics, such as Wanda Coleman, who authored a famous and controversial 2002 book review. Among many statements in the piece, Coleman notes, "Few poets can spark a smidgen of the controversy generated in 2001 by Angelou's undisclosed cut of an estimated fifty million dollars in sales for writing greeting-card verse, a pursuit for which she is superbly suited." Many thought Coleman was too harsh, especially EsoWon Books, but that's a longer story.

Dr. Maya Angelou on the set of the film Poetic Justice (1993) with director John Singleton. Angelou played a role on camera as well as writing the poetry heard in the film. | Photo: Courtesy of mayangelou.com


On a personal note I have taught Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" for over a decade. In ten plus years of teaching poetry workshops, there is no more effective poem to motivate and inspire teen women; this is true for young men as well. The poem is among the most widely known of the last few generations. Some may know it from the Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur film, "Poetic Justice." The poem's emphasis on celebrating a phenomenal, strong and independent woman, is universal and timeless. The opening lines are well known: "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies."

Inevitably students that hear the poem in class and quickly talk about it end up writing a poem of their own on the phenomenal woman in their life, whether it be their mother, grandmother, sister, wife, girlfriend, or any other relation. Some students have loved the poem so much that they have memorized it. Many other poetry teachers and English Professors have also remarked on how well the poem reaches young writers.

Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" is also very inspiring and a great poem to motivate young thinkers and writers. The accessibility and redemption in Angelou's poetry makes her work easy to teach. I have used these poems countless times over the years, and they never fail to bring students delight and inspire more writing.

Angelou's status after so many years is all and all, unassailable. Beyond her writing, she's been Oprah Winfrey's mentor, Clinton's inaugural poet, a PBS Documentary filmmaker, and an actress in four decades of film and television. Angelou is an American icon that really did do it all. What's more is that she has inspired generations of women and men that they can do it too. Long live Maya Angelou.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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