Author. Performer. Activist. Poet. Actress. Playwright. There are few others whose accomplishments are as prestigious, prolific, or expansive as Maya Angelou’s. I initially encountered her work in a ninth grade literature class. The first of her seven autobiographies was our assigned reading. I voraciously consumed every word of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, my heart filled with grief, my eyes filled with tears, my mind filled with questions. It is no wonder this book is the most acclaimed of all her autobiographies, books of poetry, and essays. As a fourteen year-old, my mind was opened to the power of stories, particularly the stories of those vastly different from oneself, and to the oppression black women like Angelou experienced in the United States. As a native white Southerner, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was my first foray into grappling with the nuances of white privilege.
In college, my creative writing professor packed all ten of the creative writing minors into a van to drive to a neighboring college where Angelou was lecturing. I sat in awe, riveted by every word. And upon the completion of my Ph.D., I moved to Winston-Salem, the place Angelou calls home. I have yet to meet her. If I could, I’d surely hand her the icon I painted in her honor, knowing that my words would fail to express how profound my gratitude is for the work she has done in our world.
This work includes her writing, of course, but also activism alongside both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights movement, advocacy for women and persons of color, and service as the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Named Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, Angelou experienced the oppression of being a young black girl in Stamps, Arkansas, and later being sexually abused in St. Louis. She rose up through poverty and prostitution and, in addition to achieving acclaim as a writer, was also an actress, dancer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and television programs.
It is no wonder she has received over thirty honorary doctorates, holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was asked to recite her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton; she was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost in 1961. And her writing has arguably expanded the genre of autobiography by focusing on themes of race, family, identity, gender, and travel.
She has taught countless people that all God’s children do, indeed, need traveling shoes, that in the face of tremendous injustice, black women still rise, and that beautiful, true, and evocative writing has powerful potential to stir and shake readers. There was no doubt in my mind that Maya Angelou is a holy woman. But it wasn’t until I moved to her hometown that I canonized her into sainthood and she officially became a Holy Woman Icon. She joins my many other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist that I feature each month: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, and the Holy Woman Icon archetype.
Joining this great cloud of witnesses, Angelou stands center and bold, her head gazes slightly down as though she is remembering the powerful story of her life thus far. Her heart is largest of all as it cries out to us:
When the world tried to
Cage her voice and
Knock her down,
Her heart cried out
Boldly, proudly, poetically:
“Still I rise.”
And so she did.
The voice and writings of this prophetic poet embolden us all to rise up for justice, for equality, for what is good and honorable, right and true. As she celebrates 86 years of life this month, let us give thanks that for 86 years the world has been a bit more just, a bit more beautiful, and a bit more holy because of her presence among us.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com