Poet and activist Maya Angelou. File photo: Gary Hershorn

In many ways, the story Dr Maya Angleou tells with poignancy in The Heart of a Woman is my story, writes Azania wa Malaika.


I met Maya Angelou during a visit to my grandmother’s RDP house on the outskirts of Soweto. It was an uneventful and cold Friday afternoon in the autumn of 2009.

I was 18 years old, in my final year of school at Florida Park High School in the west of Joburg.

I found my grandmother conducting a spring-cleaning of the house.

Piles of old boxes were stacked in the middle of the sitting room; they contained books belonging to my mother.

They had gathered dust and were damp. Nevertheless, I inspected their contents, and inside one of them, I was met by a vaguely familiar name: Maya Angelou.

I had heard about Angelou from my mother, a passionate lover of literature but I had never read any of her writings.

On that day, a day stored in the galleries of my mind, I held in my hand The Heart of a Woman, a book that would awaken in me the love for autobiographical works.

Until that point, I had been in a John Grisham phase, captivated by courtroom drama.

When I was not immersed in tales of law firms, I had my nose in classics whose only captivating aspect was the poetic use of language, but whose plots I could not identify with.

It is not easy relating to a book set in the Elizabethan era, or to make sense of Petrarchan sonnets articulated in iambic pentameter.

In two days I finished The Heart of a Woman. It is the fourth instalment of a series of seven of Angelou’s autobiographies and it details the story of a black woman that I could immediately relate to.

I had grown up in the streets of Meadowlands seeing women like Angelou: single mothers battling to raise their teenage children in the concrete jungle of a claustrophobic ghetto.

In many ways, the story Maya tells with poignancy in The Heart of a Woman is my story.

In Guy Johnson, Angelou’s son, I found parts of me and in Angelou, I found my own mother.

From the very beginning of the narrative, when they move to a rented house in San Francisco, Angelou and her son embark on a journey all too familiar to many black children growing up in the townships, beyond the borders of the US.

They walk through the streets of the “Black Condition” and in it, lose and rediscover their humanness.

When I finished The Heart of a Woman, I immediately decided to look for more of her books.

I had to engage with more of Angelou’s thoughts and experiences.

My next encounter with her was with a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I found on the top shelf of a broken bookshelf at a second-hand bookstore I frequented in Melville.

If The Heart of a Woman captured my attention, this book, the first of her series of autobiographies, held my attention permanently.

Never before had the story of “Blackness” been told with such sheer brilliance.

Along with Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the best stories about the reality of black existence ever told.

The title of the book was inspired by one of my favourite poems, Sympathy, by African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings could very well have been written about a young girl growing up in Soweto during the height of apartheid.

So similar is the story of a young Angelou growing up in the racist Jim Crow South that no black South African can fail to identify with the trials and tribulations that she faces as she battles with the realities of institutionalised white racism and dehumanisation in the hands of a repressive system.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou introduces the reader to more than just the story of her life as a young girl abandoned by her parents, who is forced to face a harsh life with no one beside her, but to that of her equally broken brother, Bailey.

She becomes a voice for millions of black children who have been violated by a system designed to marginalise them, to render them less human on the basis of their pigmentation; and a patriarchal society that socialises them into believing that the body of a black woman is a thing to be possessed and to be tossed about between one erect penis and another.

I have come to treasure Angelou’s writings as a source of motivation as I navigate through life and deal with struggles, most of which, like hers, are imposed by a diabolical and unjust system.

Her work will not cease to be relevant to the narrative of blackness, though they are more than just stories that narrate the struggles of black women throughout the world.

She offers tools with which we can fight against the chains that bind us, that hold us captive even as, caged, we insist on singing.

One of these writings, which give many of us strength when the going gets tough and the road gets rough, is her celebrated poetic masterpiece, Phenomenal Woman, where she draws power from a physique that does not “suit a fashion model’s size”.

It is precisely because of the strength of her spirit, as captured in the words of this poem, that I do not believe that Angelou has died.

Warriors do not die, and Maya Angelou was a warrior in every sense of the word.

From surviving the harsh realities of racist America, the violence that visited her and stole her innocence and her battle to establish her identity; to cementing her name as one of the finest humans that ever graced the earth, Angelou has earned her rightful immortality.


** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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