Although Black History Month is coming to an end, it’s important to amplify Black voices every single day. One of the best ways we can do so is by listening to and reading about lived experiences from poets like Maya Angelou. As an advocate for social justice, Angelou worked alongside civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Throughout her lifetime, she was awarded over 50 honorary degrees, one of them being the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The following list contains my favorite poems of hers that discuss themes of discrimination, female empowerment, and hope for our future.
1. Caged Bird
Using symbolism of a free bird and a caged bird, the free bird can fly wherever they please while basking in the sun. The caged bird, who is held captive by locked bars, clipped wings, and tied feet can only dream of freedom through song. When it sings, the bird does so “with a fearful trill of things unknown,” but with a hope that its voice will be heard. The image of this caged bird alludes to the experiences of African Americans who suffer the repercussions of systemic racism in a world of whiteness.
2. Still I Rise
This empowering poem details Angelou’s confidence in getting back up despite attempts from society to knock her down. No matter how much pain is inflicted onto her, she refuses to be defeated. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
“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.”
Angelou’s poem addresses the underlying secret of embodying a phenomenal woman. By choosing to deviate from female beauty standards set by patriarchal norms, the author says the key to true beauty is within oneself and never external. The following excerpt reveals the secret:
“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
Angelou emphasizes the detriments of Black families forgetting the struggles of their people, as it halts the community from moving forward. Therefore, she pushes Black people to make a pledge to have gratitude for their ancestors, help out struggling neighbors, and foster a safe environment for their children to learn.
When asked about her inspiration for writing this poem, Angelou shared that she was aghast about losing [the youth] so fast to bad behavior. So, she decided to write a message for all youth regardless of the color of their skin in order to remind them of their power. Angelou also pushes for a collective responsibility among the youth to continue making history.
Maya Angelou’s incredible life story is one of the many prodigious narratives we should cherish and reflect upon. We must not forget that this country’s foundation rests on the turmoils of Black people. The era of Jim Crow might be over, but racism has simply modernized itself into issues like the school to prison pipeline, police brutality, and medical biases. It’s bizarre to me that basic human rights is still such a controversial topic, which is why we can’t stop the fight until the work is done. America needs to do better.