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Phenomenal Woman

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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
They swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

—Maya Angelou

I teach college in rural Georgia, not far from a town where the high school still segregates its prom and homecoming. I teach college at a public liberal arts college that often struggles to assert the “liberal arts” in students’ beliefs. I’m supposed to teach them to think, if possible. To analyze. To look for patterns. To read new things. And yet I realized right after I was done making up my syllabus for this semester that I had not included many poets of color. My dear friend and co-contributor to this blog, Savannah, gave me a huge list of poets of color, including Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Audre Lorde, and many others. But classes were starting in a day, and I didn’t change my syllabus.

I think about how much I believe in the ability of literature to make us understand and empathize with others. I think that maybe we could, all of us, use all of the empathy for one another that we can get—people of different races included. I think that maybe I failed my students in not including more poets of color. And so I can only resolve to do better, to read more widely, for the next time I teach literature—if there is a next time.

This poem is amazing—phenomenal, really, because I think it does what a lot of creative nonfiction does: it tries to answer a question in the writing of it. The speaker of the poem says, repeatedly, that she’s a phenomenal woman, “That’s me.” Perhaps she’s trying to convince herself, just as many of us are, that she’s phenomenal and wonderful, worthy of the attention she’s getting. Perhaps she’s trying to figure out why. And perhaps the way she’s doing that is listing her phenomenal attributes, in much the same way my therapist used to have me list the things I liked about myself. I like that these things include “The span of my hips” and “The swing in my waist”—all of the things that make the speaker, a woman, who she is. Oftentimes, I find that learning to appreciate my body makes me appreciate the rest of me more. Maybe it’s the same for the speaker. Whether my interpretation is right or not, I appreciate this poem so, so much.

-R

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