Today’s toughest challenge for young women and women in general is the constant reminder of not living up to the standards of beauty. The ideal woman in this society lives up to the characteristics of submissive, blue-eyed, blonde-straight hair, tall, skinny, and White. Patriarchal culture has made us believe that if we do not achieve these standards we will never be loved. The majority of women fall short from all these characteristics, but even more so Women of Color and Black women. As women of color we cannot hide from our own skin; we are either viewed as “ratchet” for dressing with hood type clothes, too “slutty” for not wearing enough clothes or as a nun when we are clothed conservatively. Society has already decided our image before, we as women have figured out our own identity. For Black women the standards of beauty are far beyond possible due to de jure segregation and de facto segregation.
There are women who have resisted all these systems of oppression through self-empowerment. Women activists, more specifically Black women during the Civil Rights Movement headed the front lines of social justice alongside great leaders such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and many other Black activists. One of the most well known Black activists is Rosa Parks “The Mother of Activism,” but many are unaware of the poet, artists, writers, philosophers and other inspiring Black women My cultural artifact is the poem titled Still I Rise written by one of the fiercest Black woman writer in history, Maya Angelou (Pittman, 2015).
“Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Johnson on April 4th, 1928, in Louis Missouri,” and later in life changed her name to Maya Angelou during her career as a nightclub singer (Caged Bird Legacy). Maya was born to Vivian Baxter Johnson and Bailey Johnson, but shortly after their marriage ended Maya and her brother Bailey Jr. were sent to live in Stamps, Arkansas with their grandma Mrs. Annie Henderson (Alchin, 2015). Here she was raised by her grandmother on the premises of values and faith on God due to the brutal practice of racial discrimination, “As an entrepreneur at a time when blacks owned very little, Mrs. Annie Henderson encouraged Maya Angelou to believe in God, honest work and family” (Caged Bird Legacy). Between 1935-1937 Maya and her brother returned to St. Louis to live with their mother and her boyfriend. During this time, “Maya was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. The shock made Maya mute and the children were sent back to live with their grandmother once again” (Alchin, 2015). From this traumatic event, later in life Maya wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a bestseller in the New York Times and nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 (Caged Bird Legacy).
After being sexually abused, Maya received encouragement through her love of literature by her teacher Bertha Flowers. With trauma following her, Maya dropped out of school to become San Francisco’s first African American woman cable car conductor. She returned to school afterwards and graduated before giving birth to her son, Guy and having to work full time as a single mother. During this time Maya kept pursuing her passion for literature through music, dance, performance, and poetry. After Maya worked as a nightclub singer in 1952, her life completely changed for the better as she joined the world of theater and her dream for literature became a reality. Between 1954 and 1958, Maya Angelou toured in the production of Porgy and Bess, recorded an album called Calypso Lady, and moved to New York to join the Harlem Writers Guild (Alchin, 2015).
Also a little after she became involved as a Civil Rights Activist and Martin Luther King Jr. appointed her as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1960 Maya moved to Cairo, Egypt after meeting South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make and worked as the editor of the Arab Observer. Maya returned shortly after to the states in 1964 after Malcolm X needed help building the Organization of African American Unity. This project did not last long; Malcolm X was assassinated in 1968 and Maya turned her attention to her autobiographical book ‘I Know Why the Caged Sings.’ During her lifetime Maya has written 8 autobiographies, 18 poetry books, 3 personal essays, 2 cookbooks, 4 children’s books, 7 plays, has been the director, writer, and/or producer to 11 television films. She has acted for 11 plays, recorded 5 albums, composed 4 spoken-word albums, and was a talk show host for Oprah and Friends, XM Satellite Radio (Alchin, 2015).
Still I Rise
Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod 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 backyard.
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
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.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In the first stanza of Still I Rise, Maya draws upon the daily criticism Black women go through in society and the false accusations that Black women are portrayed as. She addresses the lies, encouraged by a Eurocentric narrative that are written down in history such as the characters of the Mammy and Jezebel. The Mammy is a Black woman slave who works in a Southern household; she is fat, submissive, happy, loyal, and protective of the White family, but at the same time is controlling in the Black household (Ethnic Notions). This depiction helps to make Black women seem asexual and a non-threat to the mistress of the household especially with the continual sexual abuse happening to Black women by the White owner. Jezebel was the complete opposite of the Mammy; she was young, skinny, not fully dressed, and very promiscuous (Ethnic Notions). This depiction of Black women fed into the rhetoric of rape culture, where White men and society could justify the sexual abuse of Black women through the claim that they were non-human and “they deserved it” (Pittman, 2015).
All these stereotypes and narrations of Black women stem from the depiction Black slaves during slavery. Black women were forced to do the majority of agriculture work and work like animals. This allowed for the institutionalization of rape due to the comparison of Black women with animals, it gave the power to owners to view slave women as non-human. Black women were viewed as the breeders, justifying for White owners to sexually exploit Black women and this image followed well into the Jim Crow era. Black women were viewed as loose, only capable of agriculture work, and domestic work giving White men the opportunity to perpetuate this rape culture. This vicious cycle has been carried into the future, and the very “dirt” that Maya is discussing in her poem. Even with these negative stereotypes, Maya calls to action for Black women to rise above all, “But still, like dust, I’ll rise” (Pittman, 2015).
In the next three stanzas, Maya is bringing to attention the resilience and strength she holds as a Black woman. This challenges the Eurocentric narrative especially by comparing herself to powerful forces such as the sun and ocean tides. White supremacy and patriarchal culture want Black women to believe these false images of themselves in order to perpetuate rape culture and have control over Black women’s bodies, just as her fourth stanza states, “Did you want to see me broken?” Stanzas 5-7 are similar to the past stanzas in constantly challenging the oppressor on their White supremacy and White fragility. These couple of stanzas Maya is unapologetic and uses the stereotypes of Black women to empower herself, such as the line that states, “Does my sexiness upset you?” This sentences goes back to the whole Jezebel character of Black women being promiscuous, but she flips the narration and lures to the possibility that her beauty is an attribute that White supremacy is jealous of. The final stanzas are the most powerful stanzas in Maya’s entire poem because this is the moment where she proclaims self-love for herself as a Black woman even though society is constantly telling her otherwise. She has learned to shut down these oppressive voices, the hatred, and the self-doubt, instead she focuses on how to shut off these Eurocentric narratives and find resilience in her own existence.
Maya Angelou is an inspiring and iconic women figure still today because even though slavery was abolished, the Civil Rights Act was signed and we have our first Black President; these Eurocentric narrators are still engraved in our society today. We may call ourselves a “post-racial” society, but there is nothing “post” about Black women still being sexually targeted because of negative stereotypes or getting paid less than their White counterparts in the work force. These narratives show up most likely than not in rape videos that show case misogyny ideology, where Black women or Women of Color are submissive and controlled by rappers. These images create not only a false imagery for our youth, but also perpetuate rape culture. There has been many times as a young girl that I have questioned my weight, my boob size, my imperfect skin, and many other physical flaws because the media’s feeds us these standards of beauty. When we do not fit this mold, we are told we will never be loved and this is why many of our young women resort to dangers act such as anorexia or suicide. This imagery also justifies men to treat Women of Color with disrespect by cat calling us or sexually assaulting us.
I can confidently say that Women of Color and Black women have gone through this same situation in feeling unhappy and unsafe in their own skin. I imagine that Maya Angelou went through this same situation, but found forms to empower herself and empower other women by challenging the media’s portrayal of women, especially Black women. Still I Rise has become one of those pieces that have trespassed generations for many Black women and Women of Color because it is reminder that standards of beauty are a product of White Supremacy and slavery. Maya tells Women of Color that we are all beautiful in our very forms and shapes. That we are especially beautiful because of our resiliency and strength we hold to not just survive, but to thrive and rise above all lies.
By Rocio Carranza
Alchin, Linda. “Maya Angelou Timeline.” Maya Angelou Timeline. Siteseen Ltd, Mar. 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Caged Bird Legacy. Caged Bird Legacy, LLC, 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. Prod. Marlon Riggs. Perf. Esther Rolle, Barbara Christian, Leni Sloan, Carlton Moss, Pat Turner, Barbara T. Christian, George Frederickson. California Newsreel, 1987. Web.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Second Reconstruction.” AFRAM 101. University of Washington, Seattle. 01 Dec. 2015. Lecture.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Black Sexual Politics.” AFRAM 101. University of Washington, Seattle. 05 Dec. 2015. Lecture.