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I was honoured to be asked to celebrate Black History Month by contributing to a festival of poetry readings organised by colleagues in the Department of English. I chose to read “And Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou is a hero and legend of the struggle for Black Equality and although her work focused on inequality in the United States, her message is universal. She is perhaps most famous for the invitation from Bill Clinton to write and read a poem for his Inaugural Ceremony in 1993. Her performance that day of “On the Pulse of Morning” was a clarion cry for justice for all people, regardless of race, colour, gender or sexual orientation. 

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Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.
Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Maya Angelou was a prolific author, with numerous books, articles, poems and screenplays to her name, including her powerful autobiographical series that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). In these, she revealed the reality of life for African-Americans and particularly black women and children. Her literary achievements were but one element of her career though and she worked successfully as a singer, dancer, composer, actress.  She’s also often credited as Hollywood’s first black woman director for her 1998 drama Down in the Delta.

The themes of injustice, and the struggle against it, were key elements in all aspects of Maya Angelou’s life and she worked alongside leading activists including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and James Baldwin, campaigning for racial equality both in the US and around the world. She died in 2014 and among those paying tribute to her was Michelle Obama, who said this: “Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey. Through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers, through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls, through long years on the campaign trail where at times my very womanhood was dissected and questioned. For me, that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words. Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House.”


Maya Angelou
York College ISLGP, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The lives of women such as Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama are key themes in my teaching, and particularly in my second-year module that covers the struggle for racial equality in the United States from 1865 to 1977. I chose to end the module then because of a TV phenomenon that was broadcast in that year. Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley, was subtitled “The Saga of an American family” but where Roots differered from anything that had gone before was that it told the story of a black family and from the black perspective. The horrors of slavery and its legacy in the United States were laid bare, and record-breaking TV audiences were transfixed. For people of colour, it was a defining moment; their history was no longer hidden. Maya Angelou was part of this phenomenon and was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Roots, playing Kunta Kinte’s grandmother. 

Roots was such a defining moment in TV history, though, because of the impact on white audiences, too.  Often, and for the first time, white people saw the full horror of the black experience; it was an eye-opening and often shattering revelation, and it did much to garner white support for the struggle for equality. The Roots broadcast certainly didn’t solve or end problems related to racism, but, for many, it was an important and life-changing beginning. To change something in culture and society nearly always requires the support of members of the dominant groups within that culture and society. Roots did that, and it’s why I feature it in my classes on Black History alongside the importance of legislation, speeches or protest marches.It’s why women like Maya Angelou are as important as men like WEB DuBois or Martin Luther King.

When preparing the recording, I had a discussion with the organisers as to whether the video camera should be on or off.  I was conscious of the visual image of a white woman reading a poem aimed at people of colour. While the text of Dr Angelou’s poem clearly is that of a black woman challenging white supremacist authority, I think it goes further than that, and it’s why I wanted the camera on. I wanted to make it clear that I, a white woman, stand alongside all those, regardless of colour, who struggle for equality. When Dr Angelou wrote “I am the hope and the dream of the slave,” she needed that to apply to all of us. If we are to achieve full equality that I, as a white woman, also have to be the hope of slaves and their descendants. When you see, for example, the footballers taking a knee, this is the message that they are sending: that injustice against anyone for any reason is not acceptable and that WE are the hope and the dream of the slave. 

I am proud, as a white woman, to declare these words and accept the awesome responsibility. Black History Month is our history; WE are the “hope and the dream of the slave.”

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