Maya Angelou: The extraordinary life of the American writer and civil rights activist, and her poem 'Still I Rise'

Author of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' and 'Gather Together in My Name' remembered on what would have been her 90th birthday

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 04 April 2018 15:28 BST
Google Doodle celebrates Dr. Maya Angelou’s 90th Birthday

Dr Maya Angelou (1928-2014) lived an extraordinary life and is remembered today on what would have been her 90th birthday.

Google's latest Doodle pays tribute to one of the foremost African-American creative voices of the 20th century on a poignant date, for 4 April 2018 also marks 50 years since civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Angelou knew Dr King and helped organise the Cabaret For Freedom concert in 1960 to raise funds for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was a major figure in the movement in her own right as well as a champion of women's rights and gender equality.

She is best remembered, however, for her autobiographical novel I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, a year after Dr King's tragic murder.

Angelou's life was packed with incident.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St Louis, Missouri, she was rendered mute for seven years after being sexually assaulted as a child by her mother's boyfriend, devoting herself to reading and falling in love with literature after it gave her the courage to rediscover her voice and overcome the trauma.

As a young woman she was a mother, a fry cook, a prostitute, a brothel madam, San Francisco's first black female streetcar conductor, a nightclub calypso dancer and toured Europe in George Gershwin's opera Porgy & Bess.

She lived in Ghana, befriended Billie Holiday, Malcolm X and James Baldwin, directed a feature film and was the first poet since Robert Frost in 1961 to recite at a US presidential inauguration when she read her verse "On the Pulse of Morning" as Bill Clinton was sworn in at the White House in 1992.

Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Clinton all spoke at her memorial after she passed away in 2014.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel," the lady herself once observed.

In that spirit, her ode to inner strength and defiance "Still I Rise" from 1978 remains one of her most popular and enduring works and provides a fitting epitaph.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

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.

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.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

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