My Black History Month: Still I Rise

For Black History Month, Migrant Voice are running a series of Black migrants in the UK talking about the people and places in their history — whether personal or global — that have inspired them. Today Kiri, a writer, tells us about the impact Maya Angelou has had on her life.

“I’m…a phenomenal woman.” The latest advert for Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign on television features Maya Angelou voice reading her poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’. It irritates me because it’s chopped up and partly out of sequence, which I think reduces its impact. But then, I’m more invested than most.

I first read ‘Phenomenal Woman’ as an awkward young 13 year-old at high school in Zimbabwe. I was far from my home and family in Malawi, feeling out of place and especially self-conscious due to the severe eczema I had all over my body, a skin condition I had endured since infancy.

Maya’s poem was a revelation, celebrating the inherent power and glory in womanhood — something that had nothing to do with being pretty. When I read the line, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.” I stood a little taller.

I learned the poem by heart. Over the years to come I devoured every poem and book by Maya Angelou that I could find. She was someone who lived several lives — author, actor, mother, sex worker, academic, civil rights activist, poet — in a rich career that spanned several decades until her death in 2014 at 86. Her voice that shone through her work was wise, compassionate, unflinching but warm. It lent her writing a rare humanity and grace.

Image: Sport England

Her words have accompanied me since I was teen through several journeys of my own — as a migrant in Zimbabwe, China, France and the UK, and as a black woman trying to navigate my blackness and womanhood in a world that often wants you to choose between the two.

Her work stands the test of time, in part due to her ability to distil complex truths into simple language that is at once accessible and profound. I reread her poetry and essays often, turning them like jewel in the sun — her words catch the light and I often see something new in her work that I didn’t notice when I was younger.

Her poem, ‘Still I Rise’, and her accounts of her time in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s formed part of my political awakening.

“Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise.

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide…”

When I was 17 and my father died, her poem, ‘Elegy. For Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass’ reminded me that death was simply part of life, and that we continue the work of those that have gone before:

I lay down in my grave

And watch my children

Grow

Proud blooms

Above the weeds of death…”

Maya Angelou

In recent years, the idea of belonging has been on my mind, particularly with the UK’s political narratives on Brexit and the ever-increasing hostility towards migrants. Last week, I found myself reading an interview with Maya Angelou from 1973, in which she says:

“Well, at some point — you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

She goes on to explain the importance of belonging to oneself, something that really resonates with me today as a 35 year-old African woman whose life — the career, husband, kids — doesn’t look how I expected it to.

But it also resonates with me because in all my journeys since I first left home at 12, I have learned that home is more than a physical place. You take it with you. And amid a political narrative that seems preoccupied with telling people where to go (usually anywhere but here), my internal resistance is the knowledge that I carry home wherever I go.

Kiri Kankhwende is a freelance writer specialising in politics, race and immigration. She can be found on Twitter @madomasi.

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