Rest in Power Maya Angelou: Writer, Survivor, former Sex Worker & Icon of Black Female Determination

Written by Aya de Leon

May 28, 2014

We lost a phenomenal writer in Maya Angelou.  While many will remember her as an inspirational poet, I will always recall her as a groundbreaking memoirist. She was the first writer whose multi-volume autobiography gave me a vision of the complexity and depth of black women’s lives.

I met Dr. Angelou in 2004, when we were both on the radio show “West Coast Live.”  I was promoting my solo show, and she was promoting her cookbook. How do you tell a living legend how much you admire her? I simply offered a polite thank you for her work, and didn’t take up any more of her time.  Her writing has inspired millions of people, and whatever I might have said about her honesty, her courage, or her fierceness had been said already.  She knew.  She knew who she was, and didn’t need me or anyone to tell her.

But it hadn’t always been that way, and her autobiographical testimony about how she had gone from rejected daughter to celebrated author is a crucial part of the canon of US literature. Since the publication of the first volume in 1969, she has impacted generations.

There are so many standout moments in her work, but in the moment of her passing, I would like to highlight three of them: her experience of sexual violence, her participation in the sex industries, and her determination to integrate the SF Streetcar conductors.

Angelou was the first black woman who wrote of being raped, and as a child.  In I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsshe uses the biblical reference of the camel passing through the eye of a needle to describe the experience:

“The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator can’t.”

As painful as the experience was for her, she communicates clearly in her writing that she understands the context of the violation.  She highlights what—in a male-dominated society—is considered flexible and what is considered rigid and unmovable.

Her candor about her sexual experiences, chosen and unchosen, continues throughout her autobiographical series. Later, she describes her experiences in the sex industries.  Her accounts include working as a prostitute in a brothel for Mexican wage-laborers and as a pimp for two lesbian sex workers.  In our current era of respectability politics for black women, we might reduce Angelou to an uplift-the-race interpretation of poems like “Phenomenal Woman”:

When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
[….] ’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

But perhaps we catch a glimpse of her experience as a sex worker in “And Still I Rise”, where she offers a strong image of material wealth to be associated with female sexuality:

…I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs

Poet Langston Hughes is widely remembered as a celebrated African American poet while his identity as a black gay man is often erased.  Similarly, Maya Angelou needs to be celebrated as a complex writer who lived and chronicled her complex, sexual, and sexualized life as a black woman from childhood to elder, not reduced to a sexless role model of an “upstanding” black female.

Finally, I cannot help but recall an iconic moment where a teenage Maya Angelou decides to go to any lengths to get a job conducting streetcars in San Francisco, despite being rejected because she is black: “My mind shouted so energetically that the announcement made my veins stand out, and my mouth tighten into a prune.  I WOULD HAVE THE JOB.  I WOULD BE A CONDUCTORETTE AND SLING A FULL MONEY CHANGER FROM MY BELT.  I WOULD.”

That voice, that determined black girl voice has been crucial in my own black woman’s life.  I have counted on that determination, that way out of no way I WOULD to guide and sustain me in many things.  Most recently, that determination has sustained me in my quest against the odds to get a literary agent and sell a book.  Through perseverance – the kind that made sixteen year old Maya San Francisco’s first conductorette – I finally did get an agent.

In selecting a photo to accompany this essay, I chose the picture of a young Maya from the conductorette era that ran in the Huffington Post. With a sassy outfit and a book on her hip, I love this image.  May all black women hold this vision of ourselves in our hearts: having known both victory and defeat, but still determined, hopeful, and fierce.

Feature photo: OWN

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