|STILL I RISE:
THE STORY OF
ISBN # 1-56456-310-3
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be sold, by any process or
technique, without the express consent of the publisher.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER ONE: CAPITOL…..………………………………………………………….3
CHAPTER TWO: MOMMA...……………………………………………………………5
CHAPTER THREE: ST. LOUIS………………………………………………………….7
CHAPTER FOUR: PREGANT….………………………………………………………..9
CHAPTER FIVE: DANCER…………..……………………………….………………..11
CHAPTER SIX: CIVIL RIGHTS………………………………………………….……13
CHAPTER SEVEN: POET.……………………………………………………………..14
For the first time in 32 years, a poet had been invited to speak at the inauguration of the President of the United States. On this chilly, but sunny, January day in 1993, over 250,000 people, stretching all the way to Washington Monument in a patchwork of excited, hopeful and curious faces were gathered along the mall of the Capitol to catch a glimpse of the ceremony.
Maya Angelou walked to the podium. Behind her stood the giant dome of the United States Capitol, the meeting place of the members of Congress. To the west, foreign diplomats representing the countries from around the world filled the stands. For as far as she could see, thousands of people, bundled in heavy jackets and hats, waving flags and signs and banners, crowded the tree-lined fields and walkways.
There was a tingle of pride and hope in the crisp air. The huge crowd had come to Washington D.C., for a reason. As part of the inaugural celebrations and parties for the incoming president and members of Congress, Americans had traveled from across the country to take part in a great process of democracy and freedom. A new president had been elected. On this day, before the nation, President Bill Clinton was taking the oath of office.
Maya Angelou felt the passion of the people. As a poet, she wanted to capture their voices and feelings and express them in a poem. On behalf of the United States, this meant that she had to include the voices of all types of people. She wanted to speak about her country, and like the great patriots, note its strengths and weaknesses. Appearing before thousands of people, the poet wanted to celebrate and challenge the past of her country. She would also re-awaken people to the present problems, while speaking of the hope for the future.
“A rock, a river, a tree,” she began.
As an African-American writer, Maya Angelou spoke about a country full of old troubles and new beginnings. She spoke about people who had suffered, and others who had taken advantage of their situations. Then she spoke about a nation of people from all different races and religions and cultures working together to build their land.
For over five minutes, the poet held the attention of a nation. The crowd had silenced across the fields. The television caught her passion and strength. Her words sang on.
For the first time in years, a poet had captured the hearts and minds of a country as she spoke of “the pulse of the morning.” The people felt her words as if she were speaking to everyone personally, touching their own lives. She understood their hopes, problems and struggles. Her words were like pictures, shaped into a vision for her country.
“Each new hour holds new chances,” she continued.
Maya Angelou spoke of her experience as an African American, a woman and an artist. She knew about new chances, and she knew about lost opportunities. As a woman who had lived through a difficult childhood, as a teenage mother of a child, and as an African American who had to find her place in the world, Maya Angelou had risen to “place new steps of change.”
As she looked up and out on the crowd, the faces and eyes of the people on her, the poet ended her poem, speaking about courage.
For she knew courage and hope were the first steps for a new beginning.
“And say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.”
Turning and hugging the newly elected president, Maya Angelou challenged her country, even if only for a moment, to take on the future with the same hope.
Shipped across the country on a train, Maya and her older brother arrived in Arkansas when she was only three-years-old. Her parents had ended their marriage, and they could no longer deal with the kids. Momma, or Grandmother Annie Henderson, became their new mother, and Stamps, Arkansas, a segregated community of blacks and whites, became their new home.
The first years of her life were connected to the world of Momma’s general store. Located in the small country town, the store served as a meeting place for African Americans, as well as the home of Maya.
The young girl observed the world from the eyes of the store. She heard the tales of cotton pickers returning from the fields. The news of the day, including the ruthless discrimination of whites against blacks, rang out on the front porch. The store was a refuge away from the world that knew little mercy for those who did not go along with the system.
Momma was different. Maya soon saw that Momma was a strong businesswoman, who ran the store like an admiral running a ship, always willing to go ashore for someone in need. Coming out of the Great Depression and then the difficulties of the war years, the poor people had found themselves even poorer. Unlike other folks, Maya’s grandmother was able to keep her store going, relying on good business ideas. She never had to go on welfare.
As a serious and independent woman, Momma believed in work, duty and religion. She was very religious and prayed every morning when she got out of bed. Taking her grandchildren with her every Sunday, Momma was involved in the local church. Maya watched her grandmother from afar and soon saw the roots of the older woman’s strength and faith. Surviving three marriages, Momma had a power about her that knew how to survive in hard times.
Despite the love for her grandmother, Maya and her brother felt bad about being away from their parents. She wondered why they were sent away. What did we do so wrong? Don’t they love us? This made her cry a lot. She felt unwanted. Sometimes she imagined that her mother had died. When they received Christmas or birthday presents from their parents, it made them even sadder.
Maya became used to life in Stamps, and she became used to the prejudice. It made her confused at first. Sometimes she wished that she had blonde hair and blue eyes and all of the beautiful clothes that the white girls had.
Momma did not allow Maya to wonder too much. The older woman was very proud of African Americans and their contributions to the country, and she made her grandchildren read the books, listen to the music and speak about the lives of famous African Americans.
Like the foundations of the store around her, Maya learned about the strength and determination at the base of her grandmother’s life.
When Maya was seven-years-old, her father arrived one day, totally unexpected. He drove a big, shiny car. Everyone in town liked him and treated him well; including Momma, and then he packed Maya and her brother into the car. They thought they were returning to his home in California. Instead, he dropped them off at their mother’s apartment in St. Louis, Missouri.
The big city was a new world for the young girl. It was almost like a foreign country, the many different races and cultures of the people, the loud sounds, the fast pace, the crash of the trains and buses. In Maya’s neighborhood, the streets were full of tough men trying to show off, caught up in the gambling, illegal liquor sales and prostitution of the times. In Maya’s mind, she had not come to stay.
At school, Maya did well, having learned math from working at her grandmother’s store. She also liked to read, but it was very difficult adjusting to the new kids and their ways. They spoke differently in a more formal way than in the small town of Stamps.
Maya’s mother was the biggest difference. She was a fiercely independent woman who liked to wear lipstick and flashy clothes and stand out in the company of others. Even though she was a nurse, she made most of her money as a gambler or working with gamblers. Maya thought she was the most beautiful woman in the whole world.
Maya’s mother had a number of men friends. There was one man in particular who shared a lot of time with her. One time Maya crawled into bed with her mother and her mother’s friend. She liked to hop into their bed sometimes. Maya was only eight-years-old. She never imagined her mother’s room was a dangerous place. Finding herself alone with the man once, she realized he was touching her private parts. He threatened to kill her brother if she told anyone. Maya was both confused and terrified. Months later, the same man raped Maya in the house when everyone else was gone.
The young girl was physically sick and emotionally tired. She was in bed for days, unable to say a word. Once again, the man had threatened to kill her brother if she told anyone what had happened. After he raped her and left the house, Maya finally told her brother what had happened to her.
The rape of Maya was not over. Maya’s family immediately called the police, and the man was put on trial. Now Maya’s rape was brought before the public, too, and the strange feelings and thoughts in her head kept her confused and worried. Was it her fault? Could she tell people that the man had touched her at other times? The trial was brutal. Maya even lied and said the man had never touched her before. She did not know what to say.
Although convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, the man was soon free on the streets.
Maya’s guilt and pain went on. The man was found beaten to death a few days later.
The world was too much in turmoil for the young girl to understand. Rape, death and the worst pain and betrayal had visited the girl before her ninth birthday. Maya felt like there was only one thing to do. She had to stop talking to people. She would not talk to anyone anymore, except her brother. She wanted to close out the world, a brutal world that had attacked her for no reason.
Finally, with her mother and family unable to deal with her silence, Maya and her brother found themselves back on the train to Stamps, Arkansas.
It took Maya over a year before she felt like herself again. The world of Stamps was waiting for her. Throwing herself into school, Maya worked hard, soon arriving at the top of her class. Momma continued to be a strong influence, as well as other African-American women who taught her about the importance of reading, writing and the historical role of poets, singers and preachers. These people used the “word” in a creative and powerful way. Maya learned how the African-American race and culture had survived and thrived through poetry and song.
One woman in particular stressed the contributions of blacks from the rural south. This woman would read together with Maya, and they discussed books, ideas and people. Maya began to see the humor and knowledge in what many people considered the slow ways of country people.
At the age of 12, finishing the eighth grade, Maya got ready for graduation. It was an important day. Many people in her area never went beyond the eighth grade. Some of her teachers had only studied that far. At the top of the class, Maya was proud of her studies and her efforts as an African American.
Once again, Maya found herself traveling across country, now on her way to reunite with her mother in California. Arriving in San Francisco, at the beginning of World War II, Maya discovered a large city full of the sights and sounds of an exotic land. Her mother had married a successful businessperson. Still living in the segregated areas for the blacks of the city, Maya went to a school in a part of town that was mostly white. Suddenly, the closed boundaries of Stamps, Arkansas, were opened to the push and shove of the rest of the world.
Maya loved to read, and she worked hard to do well in the new school. She found it to be much more challenging than in Stamps. Now mixing with Mexicans, Asians and other cultures, Maya entered new worlds of thinking, dressing, speaking and ways of life. During the same period, she took evening classes in dance at a school for adult education.
Maya’s education in another world continued. Her mother and stepfather, avid gamblers, ran a rooming house or hotel for gamblers, prostitutes and other underworld figures.
The relationship between Maya and her mother was always strong, but shifting. Maya admired her mother’s beauty and strength, and her especially tough independence. She was never submissive to anyone. At the same time, Maya had to find her own way through many of her own problems, even to the point of impressing her mother.
At one point, Maya decided to get a job. Still in school, she felt that she could contribute more that way. There was one thing about San Francisco that interested Maya, the streetcars. At the age of 15, she decided that she wanted to get a job as a conductor. Her mother just laughed. No blacks were given such jobs at the time. That made Maya even more determined. She went to the company office, only to be turned away. Maya suddenly became obsessed with the idea. She wanted to become the first black conductor of the streetcars. After appealing to several black labor organizations, she continued to return and ask for a job. Finally, stating that she was 19-years-old, with experience as a driver, Maya was given the job. She, alone, had broken the race barrier in the streets of San Francisco.
Like the streetcars that zipped up and down the hills of San Francisco, Maya was leaping away from the daily interests and problems of her classmates. At the age of 16, she was already part of the workplace, dealing with the responsibilities and decisions of an adult. In this world, Maya became curious about some of the difficult decisions that face young people, as they grow older and approach adulthood.
Curious about sex, Maya decided to meet with a boy and play around. She felt she needed to know about the world of sex and relationships. Before this point, Maya had not really experienced much with boys, beyond her horrible rape as a young girl. Her curiosity soon led to problems. After having sex with a boy who lived in her neighborhood, Maya, at the age of 16, was pregnant.
It came as a shock. Though she knew the consequences, she never thought it could happen to her. Maya thought the world had ended. For the first few months, Maya did not tell anyone. She continued to go to school. She still went to work. Finally, though, she realized she had to tell the family.
Supportive and understanding, they agreed to help Maya. There was no way she planned to marry the boy.
At the end of the school year, several months pregnant, Maya stood with the rest of her classmates and received her diploma.
Before too long, at the age of 16, she was a mother.
At the end of World War II, there was a new sense of optimism in the country. Still a young teenager with a new baby, Maya felt like she had a chance for a new beginning with her life. At the same time, she realized that her life now included two people, with even more burdens to deal with.
Over the next few years, she drifted from job to job, intent on being independent and a good mother. The times were hard. Even her family was unable to help. Desperate for a good paying job to support her child, Maya eventually entered the world of prostitution, acting as a manager for a couple of women. Doubling as a waitress and a contact person for the prostitutes, Maya saw her life at the age of 18 headed in a direction of no return. She felt lonely. Still unmarried, she felt unwanted and unneeded.
Maya’s search for a stable home and a good job led her to the road. First she went to Stamps and then back to California. She tried to join the military, but she was not accepted.
All of the walls seemed to crowd around Maya. She was too tired to try to hustle the streets. As an escape, Maya found herself drifting into the world of drugs. It seemed like the only way to deal with the reality of her life. All of the legitimate jobs had led to nowhere in her life, and her own selection of men had been even worse.
Maya simply stopped believing in herself. She had lost her determination and the hope she had once possessed. Even her young son and his smile did little to raise her spirits.
Finally, seeing one of her male friends lost to heroin, Maya braced herself from sliding into the pits of despair. She knew she had to turn her life around.
Returning to one of her earlier joys, Maya started to dance at nightclubs and bars. Soon she was attracting the attention of a number of people. They knew she could dance at better places and even in professional shows. Suddenly in the spotlight, Maya saw her life changing. She realized she could do something well and be appreciated at the same time. As she learned new steps and routines, Maya search for her own identity, her own way to express herself, and dance, an old art that had expressed the movements and struggles of people around the world, became her way out. Instead of drugs, Maya now had her dance. This called for a strong and healthy body and a clear mind. Drugs no longer crossed her mind. They were only destructive ways of bringing her down again.
After marrying, and then divorcing a few years later, Maya continued to work on her dancing. She was not only getting better, but more confident. The key to her art was study and self-esteem. Maya had to learn to believe in herself, to realize that she was capable of creating and doing great things. To her amazement, she was offered the chance to perform in a touring group of “Porgy and Bess,” a famous musical.
Traveling around the world, Maya entered many open doors. The tour went across Europe and the Middle East. For the first time in years, Maya had returned to a close group. This time she worked with black dancers, who loved the freedom and beauty of their performance. She saw the great contributions from the African-American experience.
The worst part of the tour was the absence of her child. Now a young boy, his daily life was important to Maya. She felt guilty for leaving him behind. Linking up with her son in Hawaii, Maya decided to create a life where she could continue her love of dancing, together with the love for her son.
The traveling and experience with other people in the world opened Maya’s eyes in many ways. She saw how African Americans were treated as equals in other countries, and she returned home to see the injustice and prejudice that continued in her own country.
At that time, blacks were not allowed to use the same restaurants, restrooms or other public places as whites. Children were divided by race in the schools. The fear of poverty of Maya’s childhood continued to be a reality for most African Americans.
At the end of the 1950s, a movement for civil rights, led by Reverend Martin Luther King and many other African Americans, was starting to spread across the country. They called for equal rights for all people. Maya found that many of her own beliefs for equality were represented in the civil rights movement.
Moving to New York City and continuing to work as a dancer and an actor, Maya had begun to work with many artists and writers. She felt like she had many things to say and write about. At the same time, she knew that writing was an art form like dancing, and she need to learn the basics. Meeting with a writer’s group in Harlem, Maya soon began to write stories, poems and essays. It was not easy. It was hard to accept criticism when someone did not like what she had written, but like the other problems she had dealt with in her life, she realized that writing was something she loved and wanted to do well.
In the 19060s, Reverend Martin Luther King asked Maya to be the coordinator for his organization in the northern cities. Maya agreed, and soon she was organizing events and demonstrations on behalf of the civil rights movement. Once again marrying a new man, Maya found herself traveling around the world. She soon began working in North Africa. Her husband was a South African and very active in the freedom movement on his continent.
Although the relationship with her husband did not work out, Maya continued to stay in Africa. She soon moved to Ghana, where she participated in the development of the country, just as it received its independence. Staying for four years, Maya worked as a writer, journalist and organizer.
Over the next 25 years, Maya Angelou would write five books about her life. She would also write a number of books of poetry, as well as several movies and plays. Much of her writing expressed the day-to-day struggles of an African-American woman. Her autobiographies received a lot of praise for their clarity, honesty and understanding. She won many prizes and awards and gained recognition as one of the leading writers of her generation.
Much of Maya Angelou’s work deals with the issues of discrimination, exploitation and conflict. At the same time, her poems and writings lift up the spirit with a hopeful, proud and recognized sense of survival that mirrors her own struggles. As a woman who had experienced the violence of rape and poverty, and the despair and confusion of teen pregnancy, she could express the depth of suffering and sadness. As a known dancer and artist and an African-American writer who had learned to trust her ideas and expressions, she stood as a living example of true success.
In on poem, Maya wrote,
“You may trod me in the very dirt
but still, like dust, I rise.”
Some of her other poems talk about problems with drugs or the tensions of living in poverty. She also writes about love and the search for love.
Like her books, Maya Angelou’s life continually evolved, adapting to the situations around her. Though challenged by the most horrible of situations, she had gone on to search for beauty in her surroundings. As a mother, Maya saw her son as an asset and the one stable part of her life that kept her in touch with the real world.
As she wrote and read at the presidential inauguration in 1993, looking into her own life and the eyes of a small girl in Stamps, Arkansas, Maya declared,
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
cannot be unlived, and if faced
with courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
the day breaking for you.
Give birth again
to the dream.”
For Maya Angelou knew that great dreams were still waiting to rise.
Admiral – chief of the boat
Avid – constant
Boundaries – borders, limits
Courage – to be brave
Despair – sadness, without hope
Discrimination – when someone mistreats a person because of a difference
Exotic – unusual, very different
Exploitation – to take advantage of people
Fiercely – strongly
Foreign diplomats – representatives of other countries
Inauguration – ceremony at the start of a new presidential term
Knowledge – to know something important
Mall – grassy area in Washington, DC
Oath – promise
Obsessed – to think about something always
Optimism – to feel things will work out
Patriots – people who work to help their country
Podium – place where a person speaks
Prejudice – discrimination, treat badly
Refuge – hide-out, place of peace
Ruthless – mean, brutal
Segregated – division of blacks and whites
Shifting – changing position
Submissive – to give in to others easily
1. What was it like for Maya to be raised by her grandmother?
2. What kind of community was Stamps, Arkansas?
3. How did Maya overcome her rape?
4. Why was school important to Maya?
5. How did Maya deal with her pregnancy?
6. What did Maya do to support her child?
7. What did dancing give to Maya’s life?
8. What are civil rights?
9. What is important about Maya’s life for you?
10. Why is Maya Angelou a hero?