Jeffersonville, Vermont, is a village most often associated with Smuggler’s Notch and skiing, but for Women’s History Month this year townspeople were invited to a screening of the American Masters Documentary on writer and activist Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise.
Even knowing some of her story in advance of seeing the documentary did not fully prepare our Jeffersonville viewers for its impact. When viewed with the knowledge of history, Maya Angelou’s magnetic and determined personality resonates, caught on film from her early days as a Calypso singer and dancer. But the dramatization of her childhood, abandoned by her parents and abused by her mother’s boyfriend, sent shock waves through our audience.
The odds were astronomical that this child, scarred by such abuse, could rise up and prevail, yet Angelou became a universal spokesperson for both black people and women. She wrote seven autobiographies, and countless books of poetry, essays, plays, cookbooks and children’s books. She was a journalist, singer, dancer, and film director.
Among her formative friendships, Angelou counted US Presidents, as well as Malcolm X and James Baldwin. By her own account she was sassy, haughty, sexy and once described herself as walking “like she (had) oil wells pumping in her living room.”
How appropriate then, for our gathering of readers and artists that Angelou’s route out of her traumatic history was through reading. She stopped talking for 5 years, instead reading every book in the library and memorizing Shakespeare. By the time her voice returned, it resonated with history - but it was the voice of the future, transcending racism and anti-feminism, never again to be passive.
Sponsored by Vermont PBS, Bryan Gallery and Varnum Library, Jeffersonville celebrated Maya Angelou as the symbol of Women’s History Month because her life transcended racism and linear thinking, and embodied the idea that “Our history is our strength.”
One among us that evening had actually met Angelou and described their meeting. The memory brought tears, both to speaker Ellen Bethea, and to many in the audience. Angelou had encouraged Bethea just as she’d encouraged Oprah Winfrey, with the message “You are enough.”
Would that we all have the grace to believe it.