Maya Angelou: A phenomenal woman…

Maya Angelou

Leaves a legacy and many lessons

By Susan Caba

Maya Angelou, poet, author and phenomenal woman, died earlier this week.

I realized, when I heard the news,  that I really knew very little about her. I had read only her best-known book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” So, with her distinctive voice echoing through the house in tributes to her passing, I Googled the poems I was hearing for the first time on the radio.

What an eye-opener they were, especially “Phenomenal Woman.” That poem should be given to every girl on her 12th birthday, again when she graduates from high school and college, and thereafter pasted next to her bathroom mirror.

The poem so courageously—no, I mean brazenly—celebrates attributes that, as women, make us powerful and in which we should be proud.

Pretty women wonder where my secret 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.

Now, before you complain that Ms Angelou is referring to, and I’m lauding, the use of physical feminine charms as the source of our power, she’s not and neither am I.

I read the poem in two ways, one metaphorical and the other, yes, literally.

Those words—reach, span, stride—are the words of a woman secure in her being, intellectually, emotionally and yes, physically. She doesn’t sit meekly at the table, legs crossed and arms folded. She owns who she is and who she is, is phenomenal.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please…
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth…

You probably already know that we come across as more self-confident and influential when we take up space. I once had a psychology teacher who had the class do the X and O exercise: Half the class assumed the stance of an X—legs planted apart, arms akimbo—while the other half physically drew themselves in, shrinking to lower-case Os. The Xs were the powerful people, the ones who command attention. The Os tended to be ignored or discounted.

I consciously put the exercise into practice a short time later, when a senior, male reporter was explaining to me why he, not me, should write a big story on my beat. I was leaning forward, listening intently to his rationale. Suddenly, I leaned back casually, crossed my legs ankle-to-knee, and stretched an arm along the back of my chair. “I don’t think so,” I said. I’ll never forget the startled look on his face as I transformed myself from an O to an X.

What’s new in body language research is that we use it to communicate to ourselves, as well as others. Body language doesn’t just express our emotions, it can shape them, too, as social psychologist and Harvard professor Amy Cuddy makes clear in a popular Ted Talk. When you act happy and confident, you actually start feeling more happy and confident. Spend two minutes in a power position—make yourself an X—before giving a speech, and your presentation will be more effective.

Maya Angelou didn’t need that research. She knew:

I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud…
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.


Read another post about Maya Angelou  at:

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