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Steele: The Genius of Dr. Maya Angelou

Steele: The Genius of Dr. Maya Angelou

One commitment I have made for my life is to honor genius in the form of Black women. Here are a few thoughts about Dr. Maya Angelou’s genius.

While a student at NYU’s Graduate Film Program, I received word that Dr. Maya Angelou would be speaking on campus. I had classes but, so what, I had to get there.

To see Dr. Maya Angelou speak was like standing in Nature, beholding the most awesome willow tree, or rose or lightning bolt. She regaled us with a speech; no, a lecture; no, a wisdom that shook the walls of the Center. She spoke of Tupac Shakur, meeting him and addressing the curse words that fell from his mouth. Maya connected him to his root; To the path laid before him. She informed him that she had her eyes on him, and they were steady and loving, and guiding him away from the mess done to him by the culture.

In her lecture to Tupac, she was lifting him out of the muck and mire his feet were situated in; Trying to move him away from the brutalized Blackness that he wrestled with; Trying to bring him to a land where he was a part of a legacy that cared for him; Cared for him enough not to accept the worst he had to offer, for her, evidenced by his curse words in front of an elder. She did it with a loving kindness, a magnificence, a word bomb that elders should offer the generations coming after them. Maya represented a time that feels long gone; A time where all elders were your parents; A time where community and guidance were the order of the day and all children were your children; A time where the Artists were friends and warriors in step.

Dr. Angelou and James Baldwin were friends. Imagine the conversations! The commitment to understanding their place in the culture; The desire to lift Black folks to peace of mind, body and spirit. 

Did you see the photo of Dr. Angelou dancing with Amiri Baraka? Oh, a time, it seemed. When Black loved Black. When Black loved humanity enough to challenge its contradiction in marching us to the margins. These Black Artists loved us. They gave us the torch. Maya held up the light so that we could see our way to this future. At least, we owe her the strength in our arms, in our characters, to march forward with the light.

That day, her speech, similar to a Dr. King speech, began in a very quiet place, and ended with a crescendo that reconfigured my interior. I walked in the Center that day, a young woman who wanted to be a filmmaker. I walked out, a woman who understood her peaceful power.

Maya’s life was a gift. A gift to women. A gift to humanity. A gift of genius.

In her words, I cradle, I find comfort. As I walk, painfully, through the writing of my memoir, I recall the one who blazoned the trail with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. The title, alone, let us know that we were valued- a bird, caged by forces and bars other than ourselves. And these bars get created in the larger culture and filter into our homes. But, we ARE NOT the bars. We are not the cage; we are the bird. And through song, struggle and passion, we melt the bars with our sweetness, our Art, our words, our will, to taste the liberty that is our birthright.

Lately, like many of you, I have been wrestling with the violence in the culture. In these moments of horror, I know that displaced anger and rage sees a woman’s body as a feeble target. But, because of the groundwork Maya laid, I understand that their hatred of themselves has nothing to do with me. Women, like Maya, like my Grandmother, my mother, my sisters, my Aunts, my Besties – these women let me know that we hold a sweetness, an insight, a transcendence that reaches beyond the limitations of the culture, to a wisdom and insight that cradles us through the madness. Their violence seeks to shatter our calm, our quiet place because we are blossoming, beautifully, in the culture.

My words here are brief because I need to spend this day mourning Maya. I need to get to the grieving. I need to honor the life, the trail left for me/us riddled with blood, sweat and tears. I need to find the quiet space to give Dr. Angelou her due.

So, I will leave you with this. While my Sister was in a relationship where she was being bruised and battered, I thought long and hard of how I could care for her. Young and not living in the same State, I wanted to be a mirror, a reflection for her, a symbol of a way out. Words are my balm. So, I went to the bookstore to find the words that could melt the bars surrounding her. I gave my Sister a book of Maya’s poetry. Dr. Maya Angelou’s words, the elixir of power and compassion, seemed a necessary balm. My Sister, ultimately, freed herself.

To mark Dr. Angelou’s passing, I leave you with some of those words. And I encourage you to seek other words she sculpted. Maya showed us how to love ourselves, not in spite of the harm done to our bodies or the love done to our bodies but, because of the sweetness housed in our bodies: our minds, our hearts, our fragile souls. She was, is and always will be the soil from which ‘Phenomenal Women’ blossom.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

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.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

’Cause I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at Or visit

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YES, YES, YES! Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!


She was a phenomenal woman indeed! Rest In Peace Mother Maya. I'll miss you so much. I'm glad I got a chance to meet you when you came to my university. As a Black woman who came from the same Southern cultural background as you; you made us proud.

Thanks for your tribute Tanya.


Bravo! Tanya, you killed this one. Thanks for the memories.



Her meeting Pac was a true moment for me. He could be poetic but to quote his own line he was extreme at times blinded by passion and fury. I always connected with that line. Like Pac I was full of rage in my adolescence, I punched through a double ply glass window at 15. My moms was worried I'd pop a vessel. So when Maya Angelou met with Pac and questioned the rage and cursing (something I and my friends all felt was a crutch, Dear Mama has no curse words in it, one of the best songs of that era), I took her sit down with him seriously.

I find it rather strategic her last connection with hip hop was on Kendrick Lamar's debut album. And it's where she appears that really makes an impact. Lamar wrote the album as an angst ridden, frustrated and aimless boy in Compton. He's going down the same miserable path we all face in the hood. He's resigned to his fate. He knows he's better than the hood but feels trapped. He goes through his motions, sex, hanging with his boys getting into things he shouldn't be. And then the inevitable beef-guns and some one is killed. It's Kendrick's boy. On the skit he screams "I'm tired". Maya Angelou voice comes in and asked "why are you so angry?" It bought me back to my late adolescence years. Fights, blades, guns, a murder, revenge for the murder.

I had no idea she was on the album. It floored me really. She was still reaching out to a generation still lost and abandoned. I felt she was on that album because when she got to Pac he was a star. Lamar was a rookie. You can hear the ghost of dead friends and relatives buried since Lamar was born haunting him in the album. Her appearance was her way of saying she hasn't given up on us. She reached out to hip hops 3rd wave which is further removed from the Civil Rights era than any other generation. I know there was some of them asking "who was the lady?" Thats why being on that album is special to me. Hip hop is so all over the place but she never turned her back on us. You gotta love her for that. I hope she knew I took note.

Andre Seewood

Perhaps this great loss is not a loss at all, but a rememberance of things gained. Wonderful tribute Tanya.

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