Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 is an American autobiographer and poet who has been called “America’s most visible black female autobiographer” by scholar Joanne M. Braxton. Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” in included in the collection And Still I Rise.
The woman portrayed here is the woman of substance, as she rises above conventional paradigms that enslaves her into a domestic archetype or aesthetic construct. The pretty /plain woman dialectical pair may also serve to emblematize the dialectical pair of the white/black with regard to an American Black writer.
The poem challenges the oft-quoted adage that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. In this modern era of ‘reification’ or commodification, people are akin to things, that they are assessed on the basis of their packaging and material worth. The more the individual is visually appealing, the more the confidence-factor. In such a context, Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman poses a question mark, as to what lends her so much of confidence. She quips with unflinching self-assurance that she may not be her appealing in the conventional sense. Nor does her figure pose a challenge to a fashion model. People fail to believe her as she reiterates that her x-factor lies in something beyond this. The work ‘secret’ also alludes to the intriguing element in her . She asserts her resilience that it is in “the reach of her arms”-her ability to grasp things at her will. It lies within the span of her hips –her buoyancy. It also lies within the stride of her step-the way she carries herself around. The curl of her lips -her eloquence. And it all lies predominantly in her essence because:
I’m a woman
She can walk into a room ‘as cool as you please,’ as she is well aware of her self-worth. Her attitude drives men to their knees; and even makes them collect around her like bees. Her usage of the collective noun ‘a hive of bees’ sets off her exclusiveness. It appears in the fire (passion) of her eyes, the intense look. It lies in the flash(candour) of her teeth. It also pertains to the swing of her waist-her assertion of sexuality and the joy of her feet-the infectious elation.
She remains an enigma to the men as she teases them out of thought like the archetypal Grecian Urn does. Try as they can, they cannot touch the enigmatic element in her. Though she tries to showcase the same to them, they state that it belies them and is a ‘phenomenon’ that they cannot perceive through the mere senses of perception. This is indeed what renders her phenomenal; as she reiterates with the refrain. She asserts:
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
By the above-said aspects, she foregrounds her various aspects with reference to curve (arch of my back), shape and expression(sun of my smile), sensual movement (ride of my breasts) and the elegance of the same(grace of my style).
People may comprehend as to why the speaker walks upright. The speaker need not make loud statements regarding herself. She also does not find the need to resort to melodramatic antics. Because her very presence or passing incites a feeling of pride in the spectator. Her personality is revealed in the rhythm of her (‘the click of my heels’), the warmth she exudes (the palm of her hand) and the inevitable care. That is the essential essence of a woman :
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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