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If Maya Angelou Had Been Born 60 Years Later

Maya Angelou

Image: Talbot Troy via Flickr

If Maya Angelou had been born 60 years later, and had been 26 today instead of dying at 86, she likely wouldn’t have been published.  She would have been met by the publishing world with the question: who do you know?  Even with her work in the Civil Rights movement and her connection to the Harlem Writers Guild as well as her connections from the theater community and various art forms, she still wasn’t a sure shot for publication.

If the answer had been no one, she would have found it extremely difficult to downright impossible to get her foot in the door.  She would have been in an agent’s slush pile, and while we would love to think that her brilliance would have gotten her noticed amid the other manuscripts, we also know that a poor girl from Arkansas has a lot working against her and many successful writers experience a lot of rejection along the way.  How much rejection is enough to get an author-to-be to change their mind about writing?

And let’s say that she did break out of the slush pile and obtain an agent.  The next question would be what is your platform?  How many Twitter followers to you have?  What is the reach of your blog?  Know any famous writers who may be willing to blurb your book?  How can you contribute to the marketing?  Someone would have crunched the numbers to try to figure out whether it was worth buying the book for how many copies they would predict it would sell.  They would have looked at the writing quality for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and weighed it against the subject matter and then examined that against the last book to hit the marketplace that was similar in nature.

She wouldn’t have been a professor at Wake Forest University.  Maybe, if she had published enough, she would have been brought on as a temporary lecturer.  At least until the next hot writer came along.  But let’s be frank about academia — it’s no more welcoming than the publishing world.  There is stiff competition for teaching positions.  For an African-American woman who never went to college much less earned a PhD, the idea of obtaining a faculty position in this day-and-age seems unlikely, even with Maya Angelou’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement and literary world.

There is no question that Maya Angelou lived through a very difficult social time, one in which the colour of her skin brought her a world of judgment.  But she also lived through a time when the arts community sat up straight when they found enormous talent, and the academic community left their eyes and ears open to receive and utilize said talent.

The lesson of Maya Angelou’s life is to leave your mind open to possibilities.  That there is so much raw talent in the world, so many good thoughts, so many change-makers lying in wait.  We are lucky that her voice bubbled up to the surface; that we didn’t miss out on her contributions to the world.


A long time ago, I taught an eight grade women’s studies elective.  Every day, I made the girls read aloud Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” starting in a whisper and ending in a yell.  I hoped that if they said aloud this poem every single day for a whole year that they would internalize those words and remember for the rest of their lives that they don’t need to walk with their head bowed.  I have no clue what became of those students.  All I know is that it changes you to recite every day:

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.
Thank you, Dr. Angelou.  Rest easy.


1 Serenity { 05.28.14 at 1:00 pm }

I never really loved “Phenomenal Woman,” but I did very much love “Caged Bird” when I was in high school. Amazing, remarkable woman. I am glad she lived in the time she did and we got to hear her voice.

2 Kate { 05.28.14 at 4:07 pm }

I often do, but I’m not sure I agree with you here, though I can be pessimistic about our time. She was a force and made her life and if her time had been now, I’m sure she would have written (and likely blogged) until someone saw her talent. I have friends who don’t know anyone (and obviously have a fraction of her talent) who have gotten book deals long before their 40s.

3 Mel { 05.28.14 at 4:42 pm }

Oh, I’m still hopeful that her voice is loud enough and strong enough that it would rise to be heard. But it would be working against a system that is more concerned with the bottom line than getting great art produced. There are still wonderful publishers out there who are focused on people telling a good story. But that’s not the focus of the majority of the industry. Truly, if they were in it for the art, they wouldn’t be focused on Booksense numbers. But they are because they need to be if they want to turn a profit.

4 sarah { 05.28.14 at 4:49 pm }

I’m sorry, but this sounds like more of a soapbox for you to vent bitterness about the publishing industry and not so much an affirmation of Maya Angelou’s life. Life for an African American woman born 86 years ago wasn’t all roses, either. A little perspective, maybe?

5 Mel { 05.28.14 at 5:52 pm }

And the greater point is look at what we would have missed out on in today’s model. That a book by Paris Hilton will be published in a heartbeat, but wonderful literature by brilliant writers is being overlooked because it can’t be easily marketed. Booksense, bestseller lists, purchasing space on a table at Barnes and Noble — all these things didn’t exist when Angelou was starting out. Thank G-d. I mean, truly, can you imagine a world where you didn’t get to read her writing? But that likely would have been the case.

I love the renaissance of small publishers that exists today. Publishing needs to be about the story, first and foremost.

6 Mel { 05.28.14 at 4:58 pm }

Well, as I said in the post, she was born in a time where everything was working against her and her voice rose to the top. So she is the anomaly in terms of race. But in today’s atmosphere, and I come at her work through the vein of poetry and not civil rights (though her work in civil rights informed her poetry), she would be the anomaly within publishing. I’m certainly not bitter about the publishing industry — I’m a writer. That would be like saying that I’m bitter about grocery stores if I critique the way they stack their produce. But certainly, there are huge problems with the commodification of the art world.

7 A. { 05.28.14 at 8:01 pm }

She struggled so much with self-image as a girl–never told she was pretty, relegated to the silent sidelines in the shadow of her more charming and beautiful brother, damaged by the rape of her stepfather–that “Phenomenal Woman” has always been this anthem for not just making peace with the body in the face of all the media noise (something she was largely spared as a developing girl) but really loving it, relishing the power and allure of its curves. Reading that poem has always helped me feel sexy and dangerous in those fragile moments. It’s sad to think we would have missed out on her force and influence had she emerged in our world.

8 Mel { 05.28.14 at 8:02 pm }

Such a gorgeous way of putting it, A.

9 deathstar { 05.30.14 at 3:19 am }

I remember the first time I saw her walk across the stage, the first time I saw her in the flesh, I could not contain my tears. Seeing her was like seeing her was like seeing someone who instilled hope in your heart, like seeing someone who said it was okay to be black and female and artistic in this world. She was the woman I was going to name my first daughter after. I met her once, I went around to the back of the theatre and waited for a miracle and she came out. I’ve never waited around to meet any well known person in my life. I can’t even remember what I said to her, so scared silly that I’d say something stupid. I was just telling hubby last night that there are so many people out there, who just spout utter nonsense when they open their mouths, and often that shite gets published and that young people look up to dim witted celebrities who have no idea of what it’s like for real people in this world, who just yammer on and say nothing useful at all to people – and then there was Maya Angelou, who uplifted and inspired millions with actual wisdom and insight. She knew how to talk and she knew how to listen. Of all the voices out there, she knew how what it was like to be a black woman and she spoke in an language a young black woman could understand. She didn’t write fancy, flowery, dusty poetry , she just wrote simply of what she lived. And it touched my heart. She spoke to me like I mattered. A regular black girl who had no idea of her place in the world. That’s why she was a hero to me.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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