‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’

 

I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

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Casualty

HeaneySeamus Heaney died today. The New York Times headline described him as “Irish poet of soil and strife.”

I don’t pretend to always understand poetry though I savor it. I am always awed by how poets use language in such an artful way. My favorite poet of all time remains Pablo Neruda, who is simply magical to me. Seamus Heaney was another writer I have admired for a long time.

The world has lost another terrific writer today.

Here is my favorite verse by Heaney from his poem, “Casualty.”

It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.

Tourist

Tourist, don’t take my picture
Don’t take my picture, tourist
I’m too ugly
Too dirty
Too skinny
Don’t take my picture, white man
Mr. Eastman won’t be happy
I’m too ugly
Your camera will break
I’m too dirty
Too black
Whites like you won’t be content
I’m too ugly
I’m gonna crack your Kodak
Don’t take my picture, tourist
Leave me be, white man
Don’t take a picture of my burro
My burro’s load’s too heavy
And he’s too small
And he has no food here
Don’t take a picture of my animal
Tourist, don’t take a picture of the house
My house is of straw
Don’t take a picture of my hut
My hut’s made of earth
The house already smashed up
Go shoot a picture of the Palace
Or the Bicentennial grounds
Don’t take a picture of my garden
I have no plow
No truck
No tractor
Don’t take a picture of my tree
Tourist, I’m barefoot
My clothes are torn as well
Poor people don’t look at whites
But look at my hair, tourist
Your Kodak’s not used to my color
Your barber’s not used to my hair
Tourist, don’t take my picture
You don’t understand my position
You don’t understand anything
About my business, tourist
“Gimme fie cents”
And then, be on your way, tourist.

By Félix Morisseau-Leroy

Bangla kobita (poetry)


This poem is written by one of my favourite Bengali poets, Joy Goswami. It loses in the translation, of course. And yet…

In the evening sadness comes and stands by the door, his face
Is hidden, from the dying sun he took some colors and painted his body
The sadness comes in the evening,
I stretched my hand and he caught my wrist, in an iron-hard clasp
He caught me out from my room, his face
Is black, he is ahead of me and I follow him
I crossed from the evening to the night, from the night to the dawn, then the morning, the noon, the day, the month
Crossing water, tree, boat, city, hill
Crossing blows, stumbling, poison, suspicions, jealousy, graves, genocide, the bones and ribs of civilization, swamp and grass
Then crossing my own death, death after death, going on and on
The bony fingers holding nothing but a pen
Nothing…