I grew up reciting “Still I Rise” on beauty pageant stages in hotel banquet rooms in Houston. Hair done in a fresh press and curl, dressed in my peach-and-white church outfit, I spoke the poem from memory.
By then I was 12 and had graduated to Maya Angelou’s work from that of Langston Hughes. The pageants, run by my best friend’s aunt, were the capstone of an informal charm school and my mother’s attempt to instill a bit of grace into her daughters. The poem, which I chose, articulated what all of the little black girls running around the stage aspired to be: beautiful, confident women unbowed by the blond-and-blue-eyed standards into which we would never fit.
I threw my hands open and pointed as I spoke my favorite lines:
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.
The audience, made up of parents, applauded politely. Once, I won first-runner-up and a plastic gold trophy.
I quit the pageant circuit years before my younger sister, who wore a black leotard and danced to jazz, but by then Kanisha had also memorized the poems because I walked around the house reciting them. As I became a teen, my interest in pageants faded but Angelou had played her part in shaping my girlhood.
Reciting her words became my “talent” for years. During the talent show at family reunions my grandmother would summon me to the stage to perform “Still I Rise.”
Angelou’s poem became mine, too. Such are relationships with Angelou’s work. They are personal and intimate. She meant it so.
As her friend the poet Sonia Sanchez told me recently, Angelou was part of the collective of black women who in the 1960s began writing from their own narratives and by doing so “gave meaning to literature again [by] asking America to be human.”
I saw Angelou in early April as her portrait was installed in the National Portrait Gallery. It would be one of Angelou’s last public events, and although the notion generally went unspoken, it was a moment to ponder both the poet’s mortality and her artistic immortality.
She had just celebrated her 86th birthday and had been physically slowed by age. Friends and aides wheeled her about in a chair. But there was no mistaking that Dr. Angelou, as everyone called her, was in control.
She posed for photos with dignitaries backstage, including the actress Cicely Tyson. As the photo session grew long, Angelou grew weary. “All right now. That’s enough,” she said. “Don’t run it into the ground.” The photographers wrapped it up in a snap.
Onstage to see the unveiling of the portrait, Angelou stilled her audience. Oprah Winfrey, whom Angelou called her daughter, was among them. So were Gayle King and Susan Taylor, the former Essence magazine editor, and Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador, mayor and civil rights leader.
Angelou belted out a song she had learned during her days as a calypso singer. Her voice — that voice — was strong and charismatic. It was more proof of her complexity. She never allowed a single story line to define her life. She was a “Phenomenal Woman,” as one of her poems is entitled: mother, daughter, author, poet, singer, filmmaker, actress, activist.
She, too, seemed to see aging as an adventure.
“Oh my goodness, do it if you can,” she once said of growing older. “I mean it.”
Four years ago, she donated her personal papers to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In 2013, at the age of 85, she published her seventh autobiography, which focused on her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter.
She closed that memoir by writing: “Baxter deserved a daughter who had a good memory.”
“And that’s what I deserve,” Angelou told her friend Winfrey last year. “Remember me.”
Surely, she will be remembered.
Yet part of her gift was the ability to conjure memories for others, to turn what could be read as shame and transform it into triumph, to allow us all to claim that power as our own.
“Imagine it,” she said in April, calling on her audience in the Portrait Gallery auditorium to see in their mind’s eye the men and women who were piled in slave ships to cross the Middle Passage. “Imagine it. Lying in each others’ urine and feces. Imagine it. And getting off that slave ship and standing for sale at [the] auction block. Imagine it. Getting up before sunrise. Going to bed after sunset. Imagine it.”
Then came words that I and so many others could recite by heart:
“And still,” she said, “walking down the street as if she has oil wells pumping in her living room.”