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The Phenomenal Woman Ascends: A Tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou

Updated on June 15, 2014

Maya Angelou


Dr. Maya Angelou


A Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelo, a great American poet, dancer, singer, civil rights activist, actress and author died on May 28, 2014. She left behind an amazing historic legacy that most can only dream of. Some of her well known works are; I know why the Caged Bird Sings, a book published in 1969. This book is Maya’s autobiography. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings book addresses racism, childhood trauma and gender bias in America. I remember reading 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' at least three times when I was 12 years old. I was totally fascinated by Mayo Angelo’s life, her strength and perseverance. I know why the caged bird sings was nominated for an award in 1970.

Maya was involved in numerous significant activities during her life. She worked with civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Dr. Angelou received two presidential committee appointments by President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter respectively. She worked as a news editor in Cairo and Ghana. She was the first black female director in Hollywood. She also produced, wrote and starred in movies, plays and television shows. She is the author of several documentaries. Maya also served as a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Maya Angelou- On The Pulse Of Morning

Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Clinton's Inauguration Ceremony.
Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Clinton's Inauguration Ceremony. | Source

Maya's Traumatic Life Experience May have Led to her Psychological Growth

Maya Angelou’s Traumatic life experience may have led to her post traumatic success. Some experts believe that traumatic life experiences can lead to growth, new possibilities, personal strength and spiritual changes. [1]

Maya faced a traumatic event in her life that led to her post traumatic growth. She experienced rape by a family member and became mute after she was told of the murder of her rapist. Years after those traumatic events, she developed personal strength and became our inspiration. Maya told her life story in many of her publications. I know why the Caged Bird sings highlights the rape of an 8 year old Maya who overcame the odds to become an American legend.

Like Maya, there are other women who have survived rape who have managed to live successful lives. Oprah Winfrey was raped when she was 9 years old. [2] She is now one of the most powerful female voices on the planet. Billy Holiday was raped when she was a teenager.[3] She overcame this trauma to be become a famous singer. Tori Amos, singer accounts how she was raped and tortured.[4] The experience inspired her to sing songs such as “Me and a Gun” and “Silent all these Years.”

Gabrielle Union, the star of “Bring it On” was raped when she was 19 years old. [5] She later made it to Hollywood to become a successful actress. Fiona Apple was raped when she was only 10 years old. [6] Fiona overcame this trauma to become a Grammy Award winning singer.

Singer Connie Francis was raped in 1974. [7]She was traumatized by the event for years, but eventually recovered to go on tour in the 1990s. Fran Drescher,( the Nanny) was raped in 1985.[8] She eventually recovered and continued her work. Kelly McGinnis, the star of Top Gun was raped in 1982.[9] She used her ordeal as a motivator to play the role of a prosecutor in a later movie. Terry Hatcher, the Star of “Desperate Housewives” endured sexual abuse that started at age five. [10]She overcame the odds to become and actress and an activist against sexual assault.

Unlike most of the celebrities above, who also experienced trauma, Maya was a black girl who grew up in the segregated south which made her success unlikely and her story so compelling. Maya’s work seem to be the reflection of the life of every woman who overcame obstacles, struggled to achieve equality, acceptance, attain an identity, fulfill dreams, to excel and be whatever they wanted to be.

Maya Angelou- I am Convinced of This


Maya Angelou- Nothing Can Dim the Light that Shines from Within


The Meaning of Poetry

Poetry is a large component of Maya Angelou’s legacy. People asked to give a definition of poetry may state that poetry is a way of telling a personal story or a way getting one’s feelings out. Many people believe that poems are about the lives or experiences of the poet who authored the work. This is not always so.

Years ago after writing my first few poems, I was surprised to learn that my readers thought that each poem that I authored was about my own life. I received words of condolences and hugs of sympathy for two poems that depicted two sad events. I found myself constantly trying to explain that the poems were not about me. defines poetry as "an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to or instead of its national and semantic qualities." [11] also describes poetry as "oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that it is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose." [12]

One author expressed that “poetry uses words in their fullest potential, and creates representations that are more complete and meaningful than nature can give us in the raw. . . [r]hythm segregation into lines, methaphor etc. . . [are] a means to more exact commentary and expressive power.”[13]

Poetry may mean different things to to its authors and readers. However, one thing that we can all agree on, is that Maya Angelou wrote beautiful poems that touched and uplifted people from many cultures, ethnicity and generations.

Dr. Maya Angelou-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou



In honor of Dr. Angelou, I have taken the titles of some of her poems and popular works (that follows the poem) and crafted a poem as a tribute to this legend.

Mother Angelou

You have touched so many and paved the way

For women of color so that they now have a say

In a world that stifled and left some behind

Where many were treated as if they had not a mind

You elevated all women and gave them a voice

We sing write and dance as we now have a choice

We can flaunt our beauty and strut with pride

Showing our genius and creativity and how we feel inside

You told us the story of why the caged bird sings

How to still rise from the dust and spread our wings

How to achieve amazing peace and how the odds to defy

How to get our cool drink of water long fore we diiie

Thanks to you Mother Angelou life doesn’t frighten me

Cause you gave lessons in living and being the best I can be

This heart of a woman has found a brave and startling truth

In your lectures of poetic justice reinforced from my youth

You told us that all God’s Children need traveling shoes

And on the pulse of morning you started on this cruise

You wouldn’t take nothing for your journey now I can tell

Oh Maya I pray that your wings are gonna fit you well

Rise phenomenal woman rise and ascend to the skies

The Lord’s cradle will hold you that much I surmise

Angels will gather together in your name and dance along

Humming I shall not be moved while Sheba sings the song

Hallelujah! At the welcome table lonesome stars shine bright

From the light of the black candle that glows in the night

Singing songs flung up to heaven from your historic page

Eternally swinging and singing on the heavenly stage

Cecile D. Portilla June 11, 2014

Maya Angelou- People will Never Forget


Maya Angelou


Maya Angelou's Work Used to Craft the Above Poem

The titles of following poems, autobiographies, play, children picture book, essays and documentary were used to craft my poem:

Titles of Poems Used

And Still I Rise, 1978

Just Give me a Cool Drink of Water fore I Diiie, 1971

Oh Pray My wings are Gonna Fit Me Well, 1975

Now Sheeba Sings the Song, 1987

I Shall Not Be Moved, 1990

On the Pulse of Morning, 1993

A Brave and Startling Truth, 1995

Phenomenal Woman, 2000

Amazing Peace, 2005

Titles of Autobiographies Used

I know Why The Caged Birds Sing, 1970

Gather Together in My Name, 1974

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, 1976

The Heart of a Woman, 1981

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, 1986

A Song Flung up to Heaven, 2002

Title of Play Used

Poetic Justice, 1993

Titles of Children Picture Books Used

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,1993

Titles of Essays Used

Lessons in Living, 1993

Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, 1993

Even The Stars look Lonesome, 1997

Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, 2004

Mother: A Cradle to Hold Me, 2006

Title of Documentary Film Used

The Black Candle, 2008

Maya Angelou Quotes

Maya Angelou- A Bird Sings Because it Has a Song


Maya Angelou

Have you Read any of Maya Angelou's Books or Poems

See results

Symbolism in Writing

Maya Angelou was the master of symbolism. Maya uses symbolism in the poem “And still I Rise” which has always been my favorite piece. Symbolism is used to create effect. Symbolism is using one thing to represent something else. [14]

Some words that are commonly used to symbolize other things in literary works are: rainbow- depicts hope or pleasant things; wind- symbolizes something unpredictable or disaster; Light- represents home or hope; A withered Leaf- represents aging. [15] Dove is also well known to symbolize peace; black symbolizes death or evil; and a red rose symbolizes love. [16]

In the poem “Still I Rise” Maya uses symbolism in the lines “I am a Black Ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide.”

The word “ocean” is associated with dominance and power and the word “black” is associated with deadly. [17] While the above referenced line from Maya’s poem can be interpreted in various ways, my interpretation is that after freeing one’s self from the past and developing a sense of worth, or a powerful identity, you can become a force to be reckoned with.

There is also symbolism in the line “But still, like air, I’ll rise.” The word "air" is used symbolically. Air symbolizes breath and life.[18] Breath and life are synonymous. The rising air represents the versatility of the human spirit. As long as we can breathe we are alive. As long as we are alive there is hope. The sentence highlights the human ability to triumph over adversity. People who have endured adversity in their lives can identify with Maya and can really enjoy this poem. Once you read this poem you are convinced that even though the odds seem to be stacked against you, that you can persevere.

In "I know Why the Caged Bird Sings", the word "rape" symbolized suffering and the word "caged" symbolized the former chattling of slaves. [19]

Maya Angelou- Thrive not Survive


Maya Angelou Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom


Striving for Excellence

Maya Angelou was on top of her game. Many of her famous quotes seem to suggest that she believed in perfection. Maya seemed to believe that each artist should strive for perfection. At her memorial service, Oprah Winfrey recalls telling Maya that she was planning to film the movie Selma. Maya told her; “Baby, I want you to do it, and I want you to take it, take it all the way.”’ [20]

During a 1977 interview, Maya Angelou declared “I find myself taking issue with the term minor poet, minor writer of the 18th Century, minor writer of the 19th Century; but I do understand what people mean by that. Generally they mean that the writer, the poet who only wrote one book of poetry or one novel, or two is considered a minor writer because of his or her output, its scarcity. I can’t argue with that. I do believe that it is important to get the work done, seen, read, published and given to an audience.” [21]

As you can appreciate, Maya believed in excelling and getting the message out to people. She was never a minor poet, minor author, minor actress or minor anything. She excelled in every area.


Maya Angelou's Firsts

First African American Cable Car Conductor
First Autobigrapby-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
First Audio Recordings of Poems-The Poetry of Maya Angelou
First Reading of a poem (On the Pulse of Morning) at an Inaguration Ceremony since 1969
First Audio Recordings of Songs (Miss Calypso)
First Print Collections of Poems(Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water Fire I Diiie
First Screen Play Written by a Black Women (Georgia)
First Direction of a Feature Film By an African Woman (Down in the Delta)

Dr. Angelou's Still I Rise

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008.
Maya Angelou campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008. | Source


Dr Maya Angelou transcended all cultures and captured the international stage. Maya Angelou received over numerous awards between 1970 through 2013 for her accomplishments. She received over 50 honorary degrees.[22] Dr. Angelou was awarded the 2013 Literarian award for outstanding service to the American literary community’ “for people’s whose book has enhanced the literary world during a lifetime of service.”’[23].

In 2010, Dr. Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barak Obama. [24] The Presidential Medal of freedom is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian.

A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou- A Rainbow in Someone Else's Cloud



[1] [Melanie Greenberg. The Mindful Self Express. Psychology Today. Available at:

[2] Oprah Opens about Her Abusive Childhood. Available at:]

[3] Fagan Eleanora: Billie Holiday Biography. Available at:

[4] Tori Amos on Being a Rape Survivor: Healthy Place. Available at:

[5] Martin Chrystal G. Gabrielle Union’s Aha! Moment: Surrounding Myself with the Right People. Available at:

[6] Eby Douglas. Fiona Apple-A brief Annotated Biography: Available at:

[7] Ever Wonder What Happened to Connie Francis? Available at:

[8] Fran Drescher on Race Rape and her Cause of Sexual Abuse. Available at:

[9] Kelly McGillis. Memoir of a Brief Time in Hell. Available at:,,20100476,00.html

[10] Dawar, Anil. Terry Hatcher: ‘I was Sexually Abused.’

[11] What is poetry. Poetry. Available at:

[12] What is poetry. Poetry. Available at:

[13] Why Write Poetry. Available at:

[14] Symbolism in Poetry. Available at: [

[15] Symbolism in Poetry. Available at: [

[16] Symbolism. Available at:

[17] Symbolism Wiki. Available at:

[18] Symbolism Wiki:

[19] I know why the Caged Bird Sings. Availabl at:

[20] Remembering Maya Angelou: Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey pay tribute to Legendary poet. Available at: Democracy Now:

[21] The Black Scholar Interviews Maya Angelou. Available at:

[22] Whose Honor Is It, Anyway. Available at:

[23] Dr. Angelou Accepts the 2013 Literarian Award. The National Book Foundation.

[24]. List of Honors Received by Maya Angelou. Available at: http: //

Other Resources

I know why the caged Bird Sings. Available at:

Jones Tayari. Maya Angelou Show How o Survive Rape and Racism and Still Be Joyful. Available at:

Poetry Foundation. Biography Maya Angelou: Available at:

Maya Angelou:



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