“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.” ~ Maya Angelou
By invitation of Poetry Friday host Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core, we are joining today’s celebration to honor notable women. I so admire and respect Maya Angelou, a true Renaissance woman who lived many lifetimes as a poet, autobiographer, playwright, producer, director, actor, singer, dancer, editor, lecturer, civil rights activist, and fierce advocate of strong women.
Her landmark autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), made her a prominent spokesperson for African Americans and set a precedent, enabling formerly marginalized black female writers to publicly discuss their personal lives. This book and her four subsequent autobiographies are among the most powerful and transformative books I’ve ever read.
Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly without claiming it, she stands up for all women.
Today, Dr. Angelou is celebrated as an icon of gender equality and social justice, a humanitarian who led by example, promoting peace, inclusion, unity, tolerance, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and love.
I can’t think of any other modern female poet with a greater gift for oral recitation. She was truly a master of the spoken word — her deep, melodious voice so rich with the joy and pain of vast and varied experience, hard-earned wisdom, and steadfast conviction. She held audiences spellbound at her readings, which many considered moral and spiritual awakenings. All this, from a once mute girl, whose love of poetry, literature, and language enabled her to overcome childhood sexual trauma.
Some of her poems have indeed become anthems. It’s no wonder she was asked to deliver an original poem (“On the Pulse of Morning”) at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. She was only the second person in American history ever honored in this way (Robert Frost read at JFK’s inauguration in 1961).
Her “public poems” redefined poetry for many, prompting the reluctant to open their minds and listen. Her words had the power to move the masses, even as they touched humble hearts.
The honorary duty of a human being is to love.
A few years ago, I shared “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem,” which she wrote for the White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in 2005. It remains one of the most well-visited posts at Alphabet Soup.
I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.
Today I’m sharing “A Brave and Startling Truth,” which she wrote for the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the United Nations (1995). It’s a timeless poem, especially relevant in our current political climate. What would she say, I wonder, about all the hate and divisiveness in our country today? Probably this:
Don’t just complain about the problems you see and do nothing; roll up your sleeves and get to work finding solutions and remedies. We do a disservice to our children and to the future by not addressing the problems that confront us. Nor should our efforts for change be thwarted or stifled by the obstacles arrayed against us. We must steel ourselves with courage and perseverance and battle on for what is right.
How sorely we need her words of hope right now, her call to action! How empowering to know that as human beings, we have the freedom and ability to choose good over evil.
A BRAVE AND STARTLING TRUTH
by Maya Angelou
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
Here is a video of Dr. Angelou explaining the importance of being “a rainbow in someone else’s cloud,” before reading “A Brave and Startling Truth.” This was recorded at the Lay My Burden Down Civil War Conference at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2013, about a year before she died. She had taught at WFU for over 30 years as Reynolds Professor of American Studies. I teared up when she described what it meant to her to be asked to write and present her poem.
Last year, 17,000 children (from 71 countries, between the ages of 10-14) entered the “Kids for Human Rights” drawing competition, organized by the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, the Gabarron Foundation and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
This contest was held to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Participants were asked to draw or paint pictures in one of 3 categories:
- the human right they felt most strongly about defending
- a human rights defender they admired
- showing how they could personally defend or promote human rights.
The winner in the second category was this drawing of Maya Angelou by Adebola Adewale (age 14) from Villa Rica, Georgia, USA:
The jury said: “Through a very realistic portrait – presented in a pose expressing personal experience – combined with vigorous statements of oppression and rights on the figure’s turban and shoulder, this drawing captures this human rights defender’s strength and mirrors it to resonate with the audience calling out to stand up and defend everyone’s human rights.”
What a beautiful depiction of Maya (especially love all the words in her clothing and that spectacular hand!).
See all the contest winners here.
🥄MAYA ANGELOU’S MOROCCAN STEW 🥄
Good food always played a central role in Maya’s life, and she loved cooking for her wide circle of family and friends. Sharing food was about more than eating. It was about connection, hospitality, and association. Like writing, cooking was another form of expression and communication. Maya’s cooking skills were considered “the stuff of legend.”
Maya learned to cook by observing her mother and grandmother. As a struggling single mother in her teens, Maya worked as a fry cook in a hamburger joint and a dinner cook in a Creole restaurant (despite having no previous experience with Creole cooking). She considered herself a “serious cook,” rather than a professional one.
Maya published two cookbooks in her lifetime, Hallelujah!: The Welcome Table (2004) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010). Her first cookbook is a collection of essays and recipes associated with key events in her life. I enjoyed reading about when, where and for whom she made all the dishes.
We decided to try Chakchouka (Moroccan Stew), from Hallelujah!: The Welcome Table. Maya credits writers/producers/performers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson with sparking her interest in being more creative with vegetarian cooking.
The songwriting couple came to visit me in North Carolina, and within hours they had taken my heart. I could think of nothing more pleasing than to please them. Valerie would eat chicken and fish, but Nick was a definite vegetarian. I bought the prepared dishes made of soybeans from the supermarket . . . I tasted them and they were horrible. I decided I would simply try to cook vegetables so well that the diner would prefer my dish to a standing rib roast.
Chakchouka (especially the Tunisian version), often includes eggs poached right in the simmering sauce. Maya’s version is strictly veggies and very simple to make, with only garlic, salt, and pepper for seasoning. With the eggplant, it makes a light but satisfying lunch or dinner main dish, perfect with a side of your favorite bread. The only thing that gave me pause is her direction to cut the squashes and peppers in “large pieces.” How large is large?
Maya’s Chakchouka reminds me of ratatouille; her basic recipe could easily be adapted to suit personal taste by adding other spices like cumin, paprika, or chili powder.
Maya Angelou's Chakchouka (Moroccan Stew)
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large eggplants, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 2 green bell peppers, cut into large pieces
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into large pieces
- 2 zucchini, cut into large pieces
- 2 yellow squash, cut into large pieces
- 4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat oil in large, heavy pot. Add eggplant, and fry for 4 to 5 minutes. Add onion, and sauté until translucent. Add remaining ingredients, cover, and stir over medium-low heat for 25 minutes. Check seasonings and adjust if needed.
~ from Hallelujah!: The Welcome Table, by Maya Angelou (Random House, 2004), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
Be sure to check out all the other International Women’s Day Poetry Friday posts being shared in the blogosphere this week. Thanks to Catherine Flynn for hosting this special Roundup at Reading to the Core!
This post is also being linked to Beth Fish Reads Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best bibs and aprons, and come join the fun!
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
“Strong women- precious jewels all- their humanness is evident in their accessibility. We are able to enter into the spirit of these women and rejoice in their warmth and courage.” ~ Maya Angelou
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