by Sam Holmes
What is the best way to honor a revolutionary? Should one raise her firsts to the heavens in a moment of somber solidarity? Are candlelight vigils the best way to express one’s gratitude for all that her idol has done for the world? Or maybe one will once again open her biography and use the trail the revolutionary blazed as a path down memory lane. There is more than one answer. Losing someone who has opened our eyes, enlightened our minds, and soothed our souls will cause different responses in everyone. Personally, I take comfort in old recordings: hearing the voice of a visionary takes me back to the time when I first heard of her. Therefore, I’ve been spending the past weeks scouring the internet for Dr. Maya Angelou’s speeches, interviews, and poetry recitations. The rhythm and tone of her speech has helped me come to terms with the loss of one of my heroes.
I’ve had less than seven years to shape my method of grieving. I’m fairly new to this. So I’m not exactly an authority of how the most appropriate ways to pay respects to Dr. Angelou and her peers. I subscribe to the ‘there’s no wrong way to grieve’ belief. But mourning and commemoration are not exactly the same. After losing Maya Angelou, I am beginning to realize that there are definitely wrong ways to observe her activism.
In the weeks since Dr. Angelou’s passing, I have heard her name in more conversations than I had before. People who had never said a word about her were suddenly expressing grief and respect. I was thrilled. In my mind, she cannot receive enough praise for the ways in which she elevated, educated, and empowered others.
But, as the discussions and whispers of mourning continued, I became alarmed with the resounding consensus: the world lost a kind, maternal, respectable woman. Without a doubt, those traits were parts of Dr. Angelou’s multifaceted identity. Yet, the new dialogue is using her revolutionary legacy to belittle women. “Girls nowadays could learn a serious lesson from her. Today’s young women should emulate her and be more cultured and less coquettish. Business should be the topic of discussion instead of Beyonce.” To pay proper respect to the amazing artist, everyone must acknowledge every aspect of her identity.
I have heard that people should focus on Dr. Angelou as a universal figure. Apparently, mentioning her specific dedication to black women would be too polarizing. That is wrong. Dr. Angelou was an ardent advocate of black womanhood in its entirety. Noting the resilience of this community, she said in an interview, “There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet.” Being a famous feminist and a capable communicator, the wordsmith appealed to a variety of demographics. But she was, and still is, such an important figure for black women. People cannot ignore that reality. She was not one to wait around idly and keep her fingers crossed that someone would celebrate women of color. Realizing that women of color were majorly ignored in mainstream literature, Maya Angelou carved out a sacred and safe place for us.
There have been people who view Dr. Angelou as a symbol for being a ‘respectable black woman’ because of her supposed calm demeanor. Girls posting selfies on social media should learn to be as demure as she was, apparently. I have a theory that this version of Dr. Angelou only exists in an alternate universe. By scanning her body of work, it’s evident that she would not belittle anyone for posting pictures of themselves having fun or enjoying life.
Her amazing piece Phenomenal Woman is a 258-word guide for self love. The first two lines state, “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies/I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” Right from the start, there’s body positivity. Young girls from a variety of backgrounds can be confident in themselves. Any young woman who walks this earth has every right to navigate life with her head held high. People should appreciate ‘the fire in their eyes’, ‘the stride of their steps’, ‘the sun of their smiles’, and all the traits that yield confidence in such a complex and unpredictable world. Let’s follow Dr. Angelou’s example. Build up phenomenal women and girls instead of tearing them down.
Here’s another important truth: Dr. Angelou was open about sexuality. In fact, she celebrated sexuality and bodily autonomy. Still I Rise is another work of art that embraces sexuality. Lines 26-30 famously address the topic head on. The piece asks, “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?” Judging by media, the answer is a resounding yes. Mainstream media love to place black women into one of two categories: there are the Maya Angelous of the world, and then the others. The Maya Angelous are supposedly refined and respectable, while the others are too sexy and lack dignity. This is a ridiculous idea. Dr. Angelou clearly disapproved of such a dichotomy. She should not be used as a litmus test for slut-shaming. Deriding female sexuality in the name of Dr. Angelou is unacceptable.
Dr. Angelou, like many of us, lived a life of victories and disappointments. Both affected her. Not every detail will be as palatable as the one before. However, tearing away pieces of her identity to fit the mold of a sweet old wise woman archetype is not okay. Tragedy and obstacles riddled Dr. Angelou’s life. She was a survivor of sexual abuse. She had her struggles as a teenage mother. Racism and sexism haunted her steps. These details may not be as marketable as the persona that other people try to construct. Nevertheless, these were the words that comprised her story. Erasing pieces of her fascinating existence is not doing anyone any favors.