In this series of posts, University of Roehampton chaplaincy staff are reflecting, as part of Black History Month, on people who have inspired them. We continue with Chaplaincy Community Worker Joanna Grennan writing about Maya Angelou.
My first experience reading Maya Angelou’s work was when I was about 19. The words she crafted in her poems ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ were like nothing I had read before and I was thirsty for more. Her unapologetic truth and strength built from overcoming obstacles spoke to me about the potential for resilience. She speaks the truth of her womanhood, her blackness, her ancestors and her worth.
Her life seems to me to be a collection of brave, inspiring actions to make the world a better place. A poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, Maya received over 50 honorary degrees during her life. Her work is widely used in schools and universities worldwide and is often cited for its role in the progression of equal rights. In her 20’s and 30’s she studied dance and drama and travelled the world performing in shows. In 1958 she moved to New York and became an influential member of the Harlem Writers Guild – the oldest organisation of black writers, actors and scholars. She lived in Ghana during the decolonisation period teaching in a university, during this time she read intensively and became fluent in many languages. She also worked with Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. on encouraging unity and progressing the civil rights movements.
I remember the moment her words changed my life a few years ago. In my final year of university, through a culmination of personal struggles I felt a profound sense of hopelessness and despair. In a short ‘Masterclass’ video on YouTube, Maya’s words of truth cut through the noise and said to me, “You know what’s right. Just do right. You don’t really have to ask anybody. The truth is – right may not be expedient. It may not be profitable; but it will satisfy your soul”. After this, I read her first memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and was inspired throughout by her honesty, humour and resilience.
In my work in chaplaincy, her words challenge me to live what I teach: “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” is a quote I think about often. A survivor of abandonment and abuse, she rises. She offers her hand to the hopeless saying, “So pick it up. Pick up the battle and make it a better world. Just where you are. Yes. And it can be better. And it must be better. But it is up to us”. The world is a better place because of her witness to truth.
Joanna Grennan is a Chaplaincy Community Worker at the University of Roehampton.