Finding solace in Maya Angelou
This past month has been the worst month of my Life! In addition to the violations against me and my body by two guys at my alma mater (See previous essay on “Patriarchy found me”) — both of which incidents haven’t really been acknowledged by both perpetrators, I have also had to deal with layers of other things that have been pressing down on me, begging for my attention — the Coronovirus epidemic, traipsing the suburbs of Chicago looking for housing and shielding myself against the subzero temperatures that have hit this city. To put it bluntly, It has been rough on me emotionally and physically. Not to mention that I am a single 30-something singleton trying to devote myself to self-love and self-care..All of these things are screaming for my attention and are laying on my heart like a burdensome canopy (see previous poem on “Winter’s Curtain”) and I’m left exhausted and almost gasping for my breath today. It’s funny — around Christmas Day 2020 — I wished to the Universe that things would fall into place, would align in a way I would prefer and that unrequited wishes of my heart would be requited! Yet, ironically, almost the very next day, I started to feel as if the structures in my Life began to fall apart and I became the “girl” trying to ward off all these bad elements in the world — the curveballs that whomever up there began to throw at me almost vindictively all of a sudden.
Then yesterday, I came across this poem by Maya Angelou and it has served as an anchor that has stabilized me through the ups and downs of the gritty circumstances of life of this past month (the month from hell, let’s put it that way!) that I am supposed to weather — not through any faults of my own to be honest — but because of someone else’s stain. The poem goes as follows:
Still I rise
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.
I love the lines “Does my sassiness upset you?” She them replies to her own rhetorical question — “’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/Pumping in my living room.” She further poses a litany of questions to her readers using the literary device of apostrophe — “Did you want to see me broken?/Bowed head and lowered eyes?” But of course, we know that she will not be broken and she will not lower her head for anyone! She is so unapologetic in her tone in this poem. She continues, “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?” These lines really resonate with me because I had mentioned previously my affinity for dancing and how I was feeling so up. The whole world seemed in front of me as I danced pirouettes and did developpes and petit vetements in my Pro Barre class a few days before the realization dropped that these guys violated me and my body without my consent. Even today, as I tried to take solace in and lose myself in my Barre ballet class albeit for 30 minutes in the midst of a hectic and chaotic day, I found myself being pulled by the sound of my cell phone with someone relaying the news to me about new developments in this situation. I found myself cursing under my breath as I was really looking forward to finishing my ballet class without interruption and in peace — I could almost taste the endorphins being released by my brain and the sweet taste of music and dance when reality struck me like a ton of concrete.
Honestly, I hate this. I hate what Steve did to me in particular and I hate how this situation makes me feel — yucky and gross and this gooey feeling in the back of my throat won’t go away (See my previous essay on “The feeling of injustice”). Steve is a bad guy and he is trying to retaliate against me by using tactics that perpetrators usually use to gaslight and turn the situation on the victim and put the blame on the victim. But as Angelou’s poem shows, I will rise, I will rise, I will rise. When I reflect on these last three lines in the poem, I feel a peace in my heart albeit momentarily in this crazy and chaotic world where lately, I have been feeling as if nothing is what it seems and truth is elusive than I ever believed. It is devastating and shattering to realize that the structures in my Life are not as stabilizing as I thought and what I had believed the last 20 years of my Life is not quite what it seems. I feel as if my innocent bliss is somehow being drained and this is a horrible, scary feeling. I valued this innocence — I clung onto this innocence. But today, I have a metallic taste in my mouth and I want to wash it out. Yet, Angelou reminds me that I will rise, that I can rise and I have to rise as she illustriously and beautifully states, “Out of the huts of history’s shame/I rise/Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise/I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide/Welling and swelling I bear in the tide/Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise/Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear” because rising or soaring like a bird — even when I don’t feel like it — is the path to clarity. It is MY path to clarity.
So even though this has been the murkiest month of my Life and I didn’t expect things to turn out the way I did — the control freak in me loves things to fall into a neat place and I love linearity! — I can say that I am stronger and I am still going even though at times, I didn’t know if I could even muster up the strength to get through these epidemic-ridden days. I will say this though — there is something SO POWERFUL and sacred about agency — I was listening to a Stanford lecture tonight and a professor said, “Agency is necessary for joy and to affirm to spirit of self.” These words echo so powerfully through me because these circumstances I’m unfortunately faced with threaten to undermine my sense of agency and control in my own Life everyday! But NO MATTER WHAT, I shall continue dancing “like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” because that is WHAT I MUST DO! One scholar, Hilton Als, stated that Angelou, as an African American female writer, allowed other women to “open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world” and after the publication of her autobiography “I know why the Caged Bird Sings,” she became a spokesperson for women. Further, her poem hints at her historical legacy of slavery — an obstacles that I cannot fathom in today’s era. Yet, she chose to endure and rise up because that is what she HAD TO DO. Sometimes we don’t have a choice — when we fall, we rise back up!
© 2021 Susan Lee