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Black History Month – those that influenced us – Maya Angelou

Date posted: 30 October 2020

During Black History Month our lawyers are reflecting on the cases and the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal career. Our Imogen Townley pays tribute to Maya Angelou.

 

As lawyers we are not just inspired by politicians, lawyers and campaigners. In our work we are also influenced by life outside the legal sphere, including being influenced and guided by the Arts.

 

I have seen that one lawyer in our firm works beneath a photo portrait of James Baldwin, which faces a framed newspaper cutting detailing the firm’s own ground-breaking success in the UK Supreme Court vindicating the rights of gay and lesbian refugees.

 

And being introduced to Maya Angelou’s works as a teenager was eye-opening for me. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a story of struggle and identity. The protagonist, Marguerite, is an autobiographical representation of the awe inspiring Maya Angelou. Her cleverness, independence, love for her family and belief in herself sustain her in an environment designed to oppress and stymie her. The themes of racism, violence against girls and women, intersectional identity, power, injustice, self-growth and voice are explored in wonderful nuance, giving the reader the benefit of Angelou’s insight and wisdom. Angelou’s experiences, and especially the injustices she has faced, are exposed and transformed into lessons for the world.

 

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings chronicles just the beginning of Angelou’s teachings for those seeking to improve the world.

 

Maya Angelou’s poem, And still I rise, published in 1978, must be among the most inspirational words in the English language;

 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

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.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise