Dixie Darr

Phenomenal, Transforming Woman

In Lent - Season of Change on March 2, 2017 at 12:11 pm


Maya Angelou was raped at age 8 and became an unwed mother at 17. Nevertheless, she persisted. Unschooled, but hardly uneducated, Angelou is universally admired and respected for her wide-ranging accomplishments, reinventing herself over and over throughout her life. Bill Gallo of Westword had this to say about her:

The talents of Maya Angelou – she is or has been a teacher, memoirist, prize-winning poet, actress, civil-rights activist, editor, playwright, composer, dancer, producer, theater and TV director, and advisor to three presidents – range so far and deep that no feat she accomplishes could come as a surprise.”

The theme for the life of this legendary woman may very well be “One thing leads to another.” After graduating high school, a series of sustenance jobs helped her to support herself and her son. These jobs couldn’t engage her mind, however, and she always loved reading. “Since childhood,” she wrote in Gather Together in My Name, “I had often read until the gray light entered my room.” As an adult, “I could be seen haunting the libraries.” I could, and often did to myself or my baby, recite whole passages of Shakespeare, Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems, Kipling’s “If.”

Reading wasn’t her only love. She had studied dance and drama starting at age fourteen. This eventually led to a role in the international touring company of Porgy and Bess. When she returned, she decided to try writing. The Harlem Writers Guild, “a loosely formed organization, without dues or membership cards,” which gave her important criticism.

“Making a decision to write was a lot like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.” But Angelou threw herself into it as she did with everything she undertook. As she wrote about an earlier job managing a restaurant, “I didn’t entertain the thought that I wouldn’t do the job well.”

Following other interests and using mentors, colleagues, and chutzpah, she added playwright, producer, civil rights leader, and newspaper editor to her growing list of accomplishments.

Although Angelou has no academic degrees, she has become one of our wisest leaders. She has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a National Book Award, and Emmys for her acting and writing and has received numerous awards for her vast array of accomplishments. Her debut directing the feature film, Down in the Delta, was yet another in a long list of startling successes. Ironically, a woman who learned everything she knows outside the classroom, became a teacher as a Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Learn more about her life by watching the American Masters documentary, Maya Anelou: And Still I Rise at PBS.org.

Read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or any of her several volumes of autobiography.

Listen to her read her poem, “Phenomenal Woman.”

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