In My Words: As one angel ascends, millions of 'phenomenal women' remain caged

Associate Professor Prudence Layne wrote a column for regional newspapers on the legacy of poet, author and activist Maya Angelou, who died at home in North Carolina on May 28, 2014.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.


Associate Professor Prudence Layne
Associate Professor Prudence Layne[/caption]As one angel ascends, millions of ‘phenomenal women’ remain caged
By Prudence Layne –

Maya Angelou described a human spirit that transcends adversity as a “rainbow in the cloud,” which was her lyrical way of challenging us all to find hope in the midst of despair.
Angelou, more than anyone, understood despair. Known in her later years as a “Renaissance woman” – a friend, poet, actress, novelist, professor and civil rights activist – it’s easy to forget the formidable obstacles she faced coming of age.
Her mother’s boyfriend sexually abused her when she was a child. A parent by her early 20s, Angelou briefly worked as a madam and an exotic dancer to support her young son. Options were limited for women in the 1940s and 50s, and they were especially limited for black women.
Though we’ve come so far since then, I couldn’t help but contrast Angelou’s death this past week with global headlines rife with stories of violence against women that make it hard to see any rainbows.
Hundreds of Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their school in April by the terrorist group Boko Haram, a name that translates to “Western education is sin.” More recently, a mentally ill college student killed six people in California when his rage boiled over at perceived female rejection, and male relatives of a young Pakistani woman publicly stoned her to death in the middle of a crowded city because she refused to marry a man they had chosen for her.
It’s enough to make me wonder how Dr. Angelou never let her optimism fade.
I remember the first time I attended one of her many appearances while I was a student at Howard University. After graciously shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for pictures, Angelou politely asked for a reprieve and requested that photographers refrain from using flashes during her speech. The flashes hurt her eyes.
Less than five minutes later, a wayward photographer disobeyed her directive. She instinctively stopped! The audience held its collective breath because we knew something was about to happen.
“Darling, I said no flash photography!” she chided as only she could. Angelou taught her audience that evening – and countless nights afterward – to demand respect, command presence and wield power.
Understanding the power of the singular and collective voice is one of the greatest lessons she leaves for the ages. She so eloquently modeled for us how to turn our tests into testimonies and our messes into messages of inspiration. She taught us that we all have value and worthwhile things to say.
Most importantly, she reminded us that we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters and when one voice is muzzled, the chorus should roar. While the singular voice has value, the collective voice has even greater power.
To think these lessons almost never happened. Following her own sexual abuse, Angelou lapsed into several years of silence. She eventually recovered and the world will forever be grateful, for out of that experience she taught us never to suffer in solitude, bravely documenting her struggles in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “The Heart of a Woman” and others.
Angelou spoke for those still suffering in silence and denied access to public platforms that showcase their plights. We can best honor her memory by living her values. Speak loudly against unjust laws and policies. Use the ballot box to fight for the equal protection of the vulnerable among us. Do more to ensure that women are not persecuted and confined by virtue of their gender.
Go beyond the use of social media hashtags. As well-intentioned as such fads may be, they provide a misleading sense of accomplishment. Only a sustained clamor can tip the scales of justice. We will champion the day when women and girls everywhere can raise their voice in chorus to declare, in the words found in another of Angelou’s famous poems:
“I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman
That’s me.”
In one final lesson four days before her death, Angelou instructed her audience on the social media platform Twitter to “listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
She listened and He called her home. Angelou’s physical presence left the earth and heaven’s chorus never sounded so sweet, but her work isn’t over until all caged birds are set free.
Prudence Layne is an associate professor of English & coordinator of the African & African-American Studies program at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.