A Theme Of Women Empowerment In Maya Angelou’s Poetry

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Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up during the horrible time of segregation. Growing up female and black during that time led to a lot of discrimination. When Angelou was seventeen she started writing poems. She took her rough past and turned them into autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and receives credit for a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. Having these past experiences results in her having a common theme of empowerment in many of her most famous poems. Critics discuss the writing style and theme of Maya Angelou’s most popular works: “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.” Critics find Maya Angelou’s poetry empowering for women in regard to self-esteem and state that she is a natural poet who has a keen sensitivity to other’s feelings. 

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Her poetry relates to many people. Critic Cynthia Betts believes, “Still I Rise” is “a model for women in regard to self-esteem, body image, and beauty” (Betts 228). Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” inspires women to rise above all criticism they may receive about their body or color of their skin. She also wants everyone to feel beautiful in their own skin. “ ’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room”. Lyman B. Hagen compliments Angelou by saying she, “is a natural builder of poetry for she not only has a keen sensitivity to feeling but a marvelous sense of rhythm”. Angelou’s poems are all brilliantly executed. Many of Angelou’s poems resonate for many people which attracts to readers. “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”. Maya Angelou’s poems are remarkably empowering and well structured. 

Novelist and a freelance writer and editor, Catherine Dominic, finds Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman” as degrading and demeaning. Dominic mentions, “from the moment “Phenomenal Woman” opens, the speaker sets herself apart from other women… these other women, the conventionally pretty, fashion-model-sized women, are marked as different from the speaker and seem to understand that she possesses a secret to attract men, a secret they themselves do not possess”. Critic finds the poem very selfish and all about Angelou and not about other women. She also believes Angelou degrades “pretty, fashion-model-sized women.” Dominic also stresses that “men here are shown to be inferior to the speaker. They are presented as mindless drones, drunk with desire inspired by the speaker’s eyes, teeth, and undulating body”. Men’s desire goes further in explanation when Angelou says, “The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees”. Dominic sees this as Angelou giving herself a sense of superiority over men, just like she did with thin, pretty women earlier in the poem. Dominic also thinks Angelou implies that the way men react to her presence is almost as if they are worshipping her. Catherine Dominic finds Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” very selfish and only meant for specific people who are like Angelou. 

“Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” both express Maya Angelou’s self-confidence. Both poems are proclaiming that she is strong, bold, and self-assured. “Still I Rise” is read as Angelou telling others that, though she has been knocked down, she will still rise and overcome. The tone of this poem is very bold. This appears evident when she questions, “Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard ’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines diggin’ in my own backyard. In contrast, “Phenomenal Woman” reads as if she is standing in front of a mirror affirming her self worth: “‘Cause I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me. Angelou affirms her outer beauty in “Phenomenal Woman” and affirms her inner strength in “Still I Rise.” Maya Angelou writes many empowering and inspiring poems. Her poems are neatly structured and well-loved by many. Though her works may be taken out of context, her intentions are still good. She uses her rough past to inspire women to love themselves and to show others that they can overcome tribulations. 

Maya Angelou passed away on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, NC, and yet, her phenomenal poems still rise. 

16 December 2021

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