“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” – Maya Angelou
And Maya Angelou made me feel some kind of way. From the moment I found I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on a library bookshelf at age 12 to when I learnt of her many occupations throughout her life in her series of autobiographies – a young working mother, a waitress, a streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a magazine editor in Cairo, an administrative assistant at the University of Ghana, a dancer, a calypso singer, a screenwriter, an actress, a civil rights activist. What a phenomenal woman.
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.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Little is spoken about her small stint as a singer though, before her success as a poet and writer. In 1957, she appeared in a film called Calypso Heat Wave and released an album called Miss Calypso, where she sang every song and composed five of them (See links below).
In her fourth autobiographical volume, The Heart of a Woman, Angelou recalls how she was schooled by Billie Holiday when she met her. Billie Holiday walked out in the middle of Angelou’s calypso act, and later said to her, “You want to be famous, don’t you? You’re going to be famous, but it won’t be for singing.” Angelou recalls that time of her life as wanting to be famous and not making art of integrity; as ambitious, but unable to understand who she was.
“What would you say to that young calypso singer?” asked Oprah in a 2013 interview with Angelou.
“I would encourage her to forgive, it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself. Just forgive it,” said Angelou, suggesting that she made compromises she regretted.
And yet, I was listening to Miss Calypso after the news of her passing and I am not so quick to dismiss this period of her life. In fact, I find it revelatory. A young woman finding herself, hustling fame in the era of Jim Crow where one had to fall into the existing structures of where black women could gain visibility. But she did it well. And her voice reverbates with the determination of a woman who would under no circumstances be irrelevant or ignored.
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.