When I first heard that we would be discussing Black feminism in class I wanted to choose an artifact that was relevant to that class topic. What better way to represent Black feminism than honoring the words of a phenomenal Black woman. I immediately chose Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise as my artifact.
In high school, I was a member of my school’s African American club since my freshman year. At the start of my sophomore year, the club decided to start a Black history month program that would be held every year in February. A part of the program included the recital of speeches, songs and/or poems of renowned African Americans of history. In the last Black history month program that I participated in, I recited Still I Rise. As I began to recite the poem to the audience, the other members of the African American club were crouched on stage behind me, creating a semi-circle. During my delivery of the poem each time I recited the line, “still I rise”, a few members of the club onstage would rise in unison. The poem concludes with the lines, “I rise, I rise, I rise,” at which every member onstage was standing. Even then I was drawn to the poem for what the words seemed to embody. However, since starting African American studies 101, I have a new appreciation for the poem and for Maya Angelou.
The late Dr. Maya Angelou was born in 1928 with the name Marguerite Johnson. Throughout her childhood and young adult years, Dr. Angelou experienced much adversity. At three years old she was sent away by her divorced parents to live with her grandmother. She was sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend at seven years old and became a teen mother at seventeen. Following the rape, her brother was the only person she confided in as a young girl. It is believed, that after the adults in her life learned of what happened, one of Dr. Angelou’s uncles killed the man that molested her. After overhearing a policemen report the death to her grandmother, Dr. Angelou blamed herself. — (“Maya Angelou Biography”). In an interview where she recounted the event, Dr. Angelou stated, “It so startled me and traumatized me. I decided not to speak, [if I did] then my voice might just go out and kill people randomly. So I stopped speaking, for six years” (“Maya Angelou: My Childhood”). Instead she read and listened, until finally, at the age of thirteen she began to speak again (“Maya Angelou: My Childhood”).
Even as a young child, Dr. Angelou understood the power and effect that words can have. Dr. Angelou said, “Someday we will be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls, they get in your wall paper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes, and finally into you” (“Dr. Maya Angelou on the Power of Words”). These statements stand out to me in many ways, but mostly because of how they ring with truth. I agree that words can have a profound effect on people and I believe Dr. Angelou understood this better than most. I also think that throughout her life, Dr. Angelou decided to use her words constructively instead of destructively.
As an adult, Maya Angelou became a Civil Rights activist, met influential people like Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr., directed movies, made music, wrote books and created poetry (“Maya Angelou Biography”). During the post-Civil Rights movement era, her poem, Still I Rise, was published in 1973 in her book “And Still I Rise”. I chose this poem as my artifact because I believe the poem contains a message to Black woman about portraying ourselves, not as others see us, but as how we should see ourselves. The history of images of Black females in this country has always been a negative one, and these damaging portrayals still exist today. To understand why these images exist, we have to understand how they began.
It is well documented that during the slave era, plantation owners commonly practiced sexual and reproductive exploitation of Black female slaves. In fact, “1 in 10 of slave women would bear children from sexual exploitation” (Professor Pittman, African American studies, October 13, 2015). Additionally, female slaves were encouraged to bear children with slave men. The average female slave had her first child at 17 years old and a total of ten living births. It is believed that the misconceptions found in the Dominant Paradigm of the slave era became the justification for the mistreatment of Black slaves. The Dominant Paradigm has been found to claim that Black families did not have the same familial ties as White families; therefore, Whites were justified in separating slave children from their mothers and fathers. The Dominant Paradigm also claimed that Black women could withstand more pain than White women. This claim lead to medical experimentations on Black women, often times without anesthesia. — (Professor Pittman, African American studies, October 13, 2015). False beliefs spread about African American women had led to their unjustified mistreatment as slaves, and those false beliefs continued to exist and evolve even after the end of slavery.
During the era of Jim Crow laws and desegregation, misconceptions of Black women changed. New controlling images had risen in place of the ones favored by Whites during the slave era. Images such as the “Mammy” and “Jezebel” figures began appearing in American entertainment (“Ethnic Notions”; Professor Pittman, African American studies, December 3 and 10, 2015). Now, Black women were depicted as asexual, fat and unattractive “Mammy” figures that were happy domestic workers. Statistically, “90% of Black women workers did domestic work” (Professor Pittman, African American studies, November 11, 2015). In truth, so many Black women worked as domestics only because they could not find any other type of work (Professor Pittman, African American studies, November 11, 2015). The effect of the “Jezebel” figure, a promiscuous Black woman, resulted in the continued rape of Black women, since it was considered impossible to rape a morally loose woman (Professor Pittman, African American studies, December 10, 2015). These negative portrayals had a profound effect on how African American women were perceived as, and how they are continued to be perceived as of today.
Currently, stereotypes surrounding African American women include the loud female, the mad woman, the lazy welfare check mother, and the continued use of the promiscuous female, and many other degrading images. The rise of Black feminists, like Sojourner Truth, during the Civil Rights era, fought against these damaging stereotypes. The development of organizations, such as the Black Women’s Liberation Committee (1968) and the National Black Feminist Organization (1973-1976), have attempted to establish equal rights and positive images of African American women (Professor Pittman, African American studies, December 3, 2015). The late Dr. Maya Angelou and many other influential African American women have since continued the effort towards achieving those goals. Dr. Angelou’s poems, Still I Rise, is an excellent example of a positive and confident portrayal of a Black woman. I feel that it is important for other young Black women, like myself, to be able to read the words of inspirational Black women, like Dr. Maya Angelou, and understand the significance in the power of their words.
By Tylisha Graham
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.
Angelou, Maya. “Still I Rise.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
Cheney-Rice, Zak. “Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ Holds a Powerful Lesson for Today’s America.” Arts.Mic. N.p., 28 May 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
“Dr. Maya Angelou on the Power of Words.” Oprah. Harpo Productions, 16 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <http://www.oprah.com/own-master-class/Dr-Maya-Angelou-on-the-Power-of-Words-Video>.
Ethnic Notions. Riggs, Marlon T, Esther Rolle, Rene Collins, Derique McGee, Ernie Fosselius, Deborah Hoffmann, Mary Watkins, Calvin Roberts, Phyllis Bischof, Barbara Christian, Alan Dundes, George M. Fredrickson, Bruce Jackson, Winthrop D. Jordan, Leon F. Litwack, Lawrence W. Levine, Erskine Peters, Robert C. Toll, and Patricia A. Turner. 2004. Film.
“Maya Angelou Biography.” Academy of Achievement. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Maya Angelou: My Childhood.” Maya Angelou: Visionary Videos: NVLP: African American History. The National Visionary Leadership Project, 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.visionaryproject.org/angeloumaya/>.
Pittman, L. (2015, October 15). Paradigms, Diasporas and Constraints. Lecture.
—. (2015, October 22). Reproductive Exploitation and Child Mortality. Lecture.
—. (2015, November 19). The Great Migration Part 2. Lecture.
—. (2015, December 3). Black Feminism. Lecture.
—. (2015, December 8 and 10). Black Sexual Politics. Lecture.
Poet Maya Angelou, Author of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ Dead at 86. Digital image. Dallas News. The Associated Press, 28 May 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.dallasnews.com/news/local-news/20140528-report-author-poet-maya-angelou-dead-at-86.ece>.