Maya Angelou died today. And I thought it would be pertinent to share my experience with her work. She’s been on my ‘To Read’ list for ages but I’ve just never got around to actually picking up one of her books; I have, however, read some of her more famous poems and loved them all. “Still I Rise” has special meaning for me.
Flashback to 2011, a terrified 18 year old me moves into my very first dorm room in a massive city 3 hours away from everything I’ve ever known. I remember snapping at my Mom as she tried to help me unpack a little because I knew the longer she stayed the harder it would be to say goodbye. So I gave her and my Dad each a quick peck on the cheek and they were gone. I headed to the floor common room for orientation and my floor Don starts by welcoming us all and declares she start the year by reading us a poem. I inwardly rolled my eyes at what I thought was going to be silly sentimentality. This is what she read:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread 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 back yard.
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 face of a really emotionally difficult and scary time for me, Maya Angelou’s words filled me with a sense of power, determination, and agency over my life. And while in no way can I relate to the discrimination, suffering, and intergenerational trauma housed behind these words, I knew that if she could face the world with such confidence, so could I. That was the beginning of one of the best years of my life and the memory of sitting in that crowded common room feeling like I could conquer the world is one of my most precious and treasured memories.
Rest In Peace, Ms. Angelou. Thank you for your life.