Warning: There is a mention of sexual assault in this article.
“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy”.
This is one of the many great quotes of the writer, actress, dancer, and Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou.
You might know her from your English classes through the poem “Still I Rise”(1978), which tells the tale of a person who shall not be beaten down or silenced in the face of injustice and discrimination.
As you are about to find out, this poem was nothing but a speck of the determination and courage this woman demonstrated throughout her life.
Angelou knew a thing or two about having your voice taken away from you.
She had a tough childhood and had been a victim of sexual assault at a very young age, which led to her being mute for a big portion of her youth.
She went on to study dance and acting on a scholarship in the California Labor School in San Francisco, becoming one of the great creatives of her time.
As stated, Angelou also contributed greatly to the Civil Rights movement. She was part of the Harlem Writers Guild, and she later lived in Egypt and Ghana for a couple of years, where she spent some time working at the University of Ghana editing and writing.
She also joined a group known as the “Revolutionist Returnees” that explored the notion of Pan-Africanism, a movement that attempts to create a common ground among the diasporan ethnic groups of Africa, as well as those who are native to the continent.
She contributed to setting up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She also used her work to discuss issues of racism, as well as the additional issues that come with being a woman in our contemporary society.
Maya Angelou wrote 36 books, which is what she is most known for in the field of Academia today. Her poetry, as well as her screenplays are jewels in the treasury of Literature, and her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) became the first non-fiction best-seller to be written by an African American woman.
In her writing, she encourages us to be understanding of one another’s situations, but to not use pacifism as an excuse to be passive in the face of injustice. To many, she is an inspiration, not only as a strong woman, but as a strong person.
She teaches us that strength is not found in violence or toxic portrayals of bravery – true strength is the resilience it takes to dare to be yourself, thoroughly and unapologetically, in a world that denies you of your very existence.
She urges young African American women (as well as women in general) to use their voices, as well as to stand up for themselves and others in need, even when those around them wish to break their spirit by getting them to conform to what society deems appropriate.
Maya Angelou once said: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time”. Her work, both in literature and in activism, is based on her empathy and wisdom, thereby showing us that she is among the many brave women we can look up to today.