A Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou

I’ve no idea if anyone will read this, this is my first blog in a while, but some news I read this morning has moved me to write something and post it to the ether. I want to pay my respects to a great writer and a great woman.

Dr Maya Angelou died yesterday at her home in North Carolina, aged 86. She was, to pinch the title of one her poems, a phenomenal woman. I first read her work at the tender age of 15. My inspirational English teacher, Mr Honney, to whom I will always be indebted, had given me the first volume of her autobiography ‘I know why the caged bird sings’. I devoured it and went on to read the other four volumes and pretty much everything she wrote thereafter. Her writing had a lasting impact on my view of the world.

A first glance there doesn’t seem much to link a happy, well-loved, teenager in a comfortable middle class home in North London with a black woman who grew up during the Depression in the deep south of America, but her attitude to life affected me deeply. Maybe because, as a teenager, you are still at the stage of wondering what life you will live, what hurdles you will have to overcome, what people you will meet who will hurt you or inspire you. After reading her books I was determined, that whatever happened, I would strive to live my life to the full and never just coast along. I would take a proactive approach to my life and make the most of it.

Dr Maya Angelou was a woman to whom a lot of terrible awful things happened, and yet despite this, or maybe in part, because of this, she seized life with both hands, lived a multitude of lives in one lifetime and wrote with incredible compassion and insight.

When I read this morning that she had died, I cried. But, she was 86, and I know from reading her books and following interviews with her over the years, that her’s was a life well-lived. So I wiped my eyes and decided to celebrate her life and remember what she achieved. She had a varied and unique CV: from short-order cook and prostitute, to civil rights campaigner; ultimately becoming a professor of American Studies and writing an inaugural poem for President Clinton. Her friends included Martin Luther King, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Her admirers were legion.

She believed in forgiveness, in the power to rise again and fought tirelessly for equality and tolerance.

So, no, I won’t shed any more tears for you, Maya. I will urge my daughters and their friends to read your works and be inspired by you to achieve everything that they can in life. Never to accept or be laid low by failure, always to strive to experience all that life can offer, and above all to try to be the best person they can; to be a phenomenal woman. Like you were. Rest in peace.


The first stanza of her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman.


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.


If you want to read the rest (and it is wonderful). Click here to go to the Waterstones’ page and buy her book.



To hear Maya Angelou reading her poem ‘And still I rise’ (which I read before my interview for university and still read from time to time when I need a bit of courage), click here.



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