Maya Angelou – 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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I have always loved Maya Angelou. She was an icon.

She was the woman whose books filled my childhood home. She was a pimp, a madame, a prostitute. She had a baby at 16. She refused to speak for five years. She was also an activist, friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, she became the first black female streetcar conductor, worked as a journalist in Egypt and Ghana, received honorary awards and degrees and become the writer and poet we all know today. She was witty –with a voice that was so deliciously distinctive. Oh, and she was also the first African American woman and poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration.

Maya. Angelou. Lived.

In truth, before I started my research to play Maya in the BBC Radio 4 autobiographies, I didn’t know just how much she really did live. How rich and full her life was. I knew, of course, about her wonderful work – her activism and her presidential endorsements – but I didn’t know that she was born Marguerite Annie Johnson (the name “Maya Angelou” came later when she was dancing in clubs in San Francisco – a stage name, if you like). I didn’t know that she had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was just seven years old and that, after telling her brother what had happened, the boyfriend was then murdered. She didn’t speak for five years after he died, because she truly believed she had the power to kill someone with her voice. It was during those years that she found Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, amongst others, and her love of words began.

“Four years after her death, Maya’s legacy continues to live on.”

Maya Angelou was a woman who inspired millions, who celebrated black beauty and encouraged us, as black women, to fully love and embrace ourselves. She said we were enough, that we have always been enough and that we always will be. She encouraged not just black women, but all of us, to be completely unapologetic and authentic. Maya did not just speak to the black community. She transcended race and gender. Her words were powerful, touching and bold. At her memorial in 2014, Michelle Obama said: “She taught us that we are each wonderfully made, intricately woven, and put on this Earth for a purpose far greater than we could ever imagine.”

There has never been anyone like Maya. She paved the way, and opened many a door for black women in America and all over the world, and I felt a huge responsibility playing her. I wanted to get it right, I wanted to get her right and to honour her in the best way I could. I wanted to feel like I had done my absolute best.

“Yes, her messages were about love, empowerment, acceptance and equality but there was also a rawness, a truthfulness and realness to her life and words”

Doing radio is always a great experience and in this case, there was an overall feeling during recording that we were all working on something truly special. I listened to the first few episodes (where Maya is played by the brilliant Indie Gjesdal) before they went live on Monday, and I was blown away. Everything was spot on: the music, the tone and the acting. They were moving, funny and entertaining. Patricia Cumper is a wonderful writer and with Pauline Harris’s direction and lightness of touch, I genuinely think we’ve created something that allows the magic of Maya to shine through.

Four years after her death, Maya’s legacy continues to live on. Journalists continue to write about her, activists continue to quote her and earlier this year, Google celebrated her life with an animated doodle on its homepage, which featured celebrities reading Still I Rise.

“Maya Angelou was a woman who inspired millions, who celebrated black beauty and encouraged us, as black women, to fully love and embrace ourselves.”

It’s hard to wrap this up, to tie my feelings about Maya neatly with a bow. There’s still so much I could say. Yes, her messages were about love, empowerment, acceptance and equality but there was also a rawness, a truthfulness and realness to her life and words – that’s why so many people are still able to connect to them and be inspired by her. There is a great interview on YouTube from the 70s, where she’s asked a question about the format and the vulgarity of her book Gather Together In My Name (in it she speaks about the pain she had to endure when she was 18 and had fallen into prostitution and was “cheek close” to drugs). She answers the question by saying that she felt it was important to tell the truth to young people, to say “you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated”. I love this quote – it sums her up perfectly. She did have struggles and she did endure pain, but through her words, her compassion and humour, she overcame her past and became one of the most influential women in modern history.

“One of the brightest lights of our time—a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.”Barack Obama

Phenomenal, she was.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Pippa Bennett-Warner plays one of three Maya Angelous in the BBC Radio 4 adaptations of her autobiographies. The first, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is available on the BBC Radio 4 website and the second begins on 6 August at 10:45am on BBC Radio 4

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