Celebrating Maya Angelou: My Journey into Phenomenal Womanhood

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.
— Maya Angelou
 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

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For a long time, I did not believe I had a story to tell. What could be special about a Black girl from Queens? The separation between myself and my Caribbean heritage left me feeling adrift, the classic first generation dilemma. I was not quite American and not quite Guyanese, more like a confused mix of cultural references - curry for dinner at home and greasy burgers with my friends after school.  I talked too white, my skin was too black, my ass too flat, my Guyanese accent non-existent. When I first read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was a tall, acne-ridden middle schooler, eager to hear the tale of a “too-big Negro girl, with nappy  black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” 

I saw the woman who had penned this painfully honest narrative as a mythic figure who redefined my understanding of Black womanhood. She was the embodiment of Black female possibility - a poet, an author, an actress, and an activist. Above all, she was powerful.  From a young age, I knew I would have to do the work of understanding my own power or I feared no one else would. All of these years later, I’m still doing the work.

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 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

My childhood bedroom beckons me. It is filled with the books that formed my mind as a young woman. I leave them there like relics. The walls are decorated with my achievements; placards from Model UN, reading lists, sappy birthday cards and post-it notes with goals and inspirational quotes in careful cursive. On my bedside dresser, a note reads, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.- Hamlet (1.5.167-8)”

The house is old. The floors creak beneath my old dorm room rug. As usual, I cannot help myself. I dive deep into nostalgia, shuffling through my old magazines and playbills. I sift through my massive fiction folder from college and cringe. The air is thick with dust and my allergies start acting up. The room is a shadow of its old self. At its prime, it was dotted with stray socks, hidden silk scarves, stacks of notebooks, and paper. Still, with the distance of age, I am able to see the room in a new light, with a stranger’s eyes.

 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

This is the room of a woman to be - someone who is not quite sure what they are about yet, but is determined to be about something. These are the walls of a woman seeking validation, seeking to be the smarter, seeking to be the best, seeking to find beauty she can be sure of within herself. In a world of urban, underfunded schools, gunshots, steady police presence, and jaded unbelievers, a Black girl develops an unquenchable need to matter.

The room is chilly and I shrug on a cardigan. I whisper to that old girl, “It will all come right. Try not to worry.”

She responds, “If I could turn it off, don’t you think I would?”

Touche. It’s not your fault.

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 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

There is pain in the room as well and I struggle with this. How many times had I cried on that bed? How many realities did I escape from to the comfort of those four walls? Light times from girlhood visit me as well.  I remember rubbing my legs down with shea butter on the edge of the bed before my first date with my fiance to be. I glance at the window where I climbed onto the rooftop to watch the stars and wonder what's next.

 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

As I go through the revision process with my novel, I find myself in closer kinship to the wise women who came before me like Maya Angelou.  I lean on the shoulders of brown and black women who were taught they were not enough, but flourished in spite of it all, came to know their voices, and love their bodies. The quintessential millennial, I complain about imposter syndrome and a glass ceiling when black women have persisted through slavery, Jim Crow, public housing, drug epidemics, lawless policing, and other methods of oppression meant to make us feel small. My ancestors have proven that we are able, and no matter the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we will survive. With stubborn determination, I recall the words of Maya Angelou. “You may tread me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I rise.”

mayaoutside.jpeg
 Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Photo credit: Steven Jermaine

Special thanks to everyone who collaborated on this project, including photographer, Steven Jermaine (check out his website here), stylist Ziggee Gold (check out her Instagram here) and editors Amora Miller and Sherese Francis. 

More photos from our Women's History Month Project: