Maya Angelo’s ‘And Still I Rise’ was introduced to me when I was 11 or 12. I don’t remember exactly when but as a young black woman in an inner city school in London, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged, coerced and insisted that we black girls, read work by black women. He would say over and over again ‘they can tell your story’. He was right that they were part of the documentation of the lives and the experiences of black women.
When I read this poem for the first time and for the many times over the years that I have turned to this poem, I now understand the strength, passion and motivation that I derive from reading a poem about my experience which has certainly kept me going as a leader.
And Still I rise speaks to me as a leader because I am part of a group whose history says I am not supposed to be here. My leadership journey has been a long one and when my mother died at my tender age of 16, it really was as the English would say ‘make or break’. I decided to make it (for better or for worse). At 18 I went onto university and had the pleasure of spending many hours with men and women from the Caribbean and from the continent who taught me about the history of the pan African movement, of enslavement, of the relationship between the industrial revolution, the UK banking system and the extraordinary amounts of money which were made during the years of enslavement of my ancestors who provided free labour on the plantations in the Caribbean, the USA and here in the UK.
As a student as I sat in many seminars defending what I knew would be a part of my responsibility as a black professional when I had achieved my degree. The debates in my seminars were often loud and sometimes aggressive as the significance of my being a role model and a mentor to black people who may not have had the confidence or the ability to experience higher education was a complete enigma to my middle class white counterparts. I knew that the all white class did not understand when they said ‘why can’t you just do what you want’ and I remember laughing as I looked at their worlds where their self identities, expectations and judgements had not be pulled apart and desecrated through an on-going media onslaught which black people face each day. I was 19 years old and I was rising…
Out of the huts of histories shameThis is history’s shame for the treatment of African people during the enslavement and movement between Africa, The Caribbean, the USA and the UK where millions of African lives were lost, and continued to be disposed of as, somewhere, African people, the people from whom I descend, were seen as less than human and hence, undeserving of any rights. When Maya states that…
Up from a past rooted in pain, I rise
I am a Black Ocean leaping and wide
Welling and swelling, I bear in the tide
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
You may shoot me with your wordsThe poem defies subjugation and passivity. It celebrates one of the most significant things that I as a black female leader can have, which is believe in self against the racism and the sexism, which could constantly undermine how I move forward. Damn it, Maya is making no apology….
You can cut me with your lies
You can kill me with your hatefulness
But like life I’ll rise….
Does my sexiness upset you?As a leader these are crucial lessons as there are always people who expect me to fall, to fail to not be great at what I do. As a leader, the question is what do I expect from me? What comfort zones do I walk in and which ones do I choose to move beyond?
Does it come as a surprise?
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
I come from a long line of achievers and from people who are still achieving…against the odds. The African people who were enslaved are people who had dreams, ambitions and plans for their lives. They were unable to make these real. I am able to make mine real and as a leader, I bring rhyme, storytelling and laughter to my work for my humanity and my humility have taught me that, to rise to be the best I can be is the truest testimony to the lives of those who were lost.
I am the hope and the dream of the slave,
So, naturally, there I go risingThank you Maya Angelou.