The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Happy Birthday Maya Angelou!

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This blog was originally published on the National Center for Civil and Human Rights Voices of our Community Blog.

We may remember today many ways, but one of the happiest has to be by wishing an ebullient “Happy Birthday!” to one of America’s living national treasures: Dr. Maya Angelou, who was born on this day, as Marguerite Ann Johnson, in 1928.  In the 85 years since then, she has graced our nation and the world with wisdom, vivacity, courage, and splendor as the very embodiment of the figure she made famous in her poem, “Phenomenal Woman.”  On a day that encourages us to reflect on civil and human rights with the widest possible scope, we can use this occasion to look closely at the many ways that Dr. Angelou has blazed paths, opened doors, and enlarged life and living for the rest of us.

Dr. Angelou is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, first published in 1969, which tells the story of her tumultuous childhood and its overcoming, and then again for her riveting recitation of the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, or as the first poet to be invited to a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost appeared at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.  Yet, these anchors of public awareness only punctuate a life of irrepressible self-invention that has enlarged our sense of what human beings are capable of and what human liberation might actually look like.  Challenging early circumstances in Dr. Angelou’s life – family violence, family mobility, economic insecurity, sexual abuse – only served to refine and lay bare her genius and expose us to her gifts – artistic, political, literary, and spiritual. 

This Phenomenal Woman was the first African American woman to author a screenplay: Georgia, Georgia, the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture: Down in the Delta, the first major Black writer to author a fourth (then a fifth and sixth) autobiography (giving W.E.B. DuBois, who famously authored three, a run for his money and his historical legacy), and even the first African American female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.  Yet, this litany of firsts obscures a deeper contribution to women’s empowerment and the global legacy of civil and human rights for people of African descent.

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As an integral creative spirit within the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Angelou’s works of autobiography then poetry helped lay the foundation for Black women’s literature and literary studies, as well as Black feminist and womanist activism today.  By laying bare her story, she made it possible to talk publicly and politically about many women’s issues that we now address through organized social movements – rape, incest, child sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence.  Through the acknowledgement of lesbianism in her writings as well as her public friendship with Black gay writer and activist James Baldwin, she helped shift America’s ability to envision and enact civil rights advances for the LGBTQ community.  And the time she spent in Ghana during the early 1960s (where she met W.E.B. DuBois and made friends with Malcolm X, among others), helped Americans of all colors draw connections between the civil rights and Black Power movements in the U.S. and the decolonial independence and Pan-African movements of Africa and the diaspora. 

By communicating through the arts, Dr. Angelou has always brought a much-needed dimension of heart and soul to our political efforts and aspirations.  Her life-as-career has been recognized for its universal value to others in her appointment as the lifetime Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, as well as through numerous awards and recognitions. The long arc of her contributions to civil and human rights, which reaches back to her early employment with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reached a tragic pitch with the assassination of her friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King on her 40th birthday in 1968, and proceeds forward to the recent formation of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest School of Medicine, is now part of the fabric of our history.

At 85, Dr. Maya Angelou is a living legend and cultural treasure. Her courage in the service of freedom and justice has left its unmistakable mark on our world. As she once stated, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

On this day, as an act of honor and celebration, I encourage everyone to seek out and share a book, poem, film, song, or speech by Dr. Maya Angelou – but not to stop there.  To truly honor her life, we must look around and witness the many “caged birds who still sing” – and then find a way to help open doors to freedom.  We can look to organizations like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which has become a convener of change conversations and a facilitator of change actions, or to organizations like the Wellesley Centers for Women, that works to move the needle of change by supporting social change efforts through social scientific research, theory, and action.  But we can also start right where we are, as Dr. Angelou did so many times herself, and ask ourselves, “What can I do, right here, right now?”  There are so many ways to get involved, and, like Dr. Angelou, to live a life that makes a difference.

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.

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Women's Review of Books: Now We Are Thirty

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Reprinted from the January/ February 2013 Women's Review of Books.

Longevity, I tell people who compliment me on my age (sixty) and youthful (apparently) looks, is not a sign of virtue. In my case, it’s simply dumb luck: a combination of good genes, a middle-class upbringing, and a job that provides me with health insurance. Yet for a small-circulation, special-interest publication like Women’s Review of Books, reaching a great age is an achievement. The year WRB was founded, 1983, was a boom time for feminist publishing—of books, newspapers, magazines, and journals, as well as ’zines, leaflets, manifestos, and graffiti. Little of that survives, but Women’s Review of Books is still hanging on.

I attribute this to many factors. For one thing, WRB is, for better or worse, still necessary. Disgracefully, even after forty years of the contemporary women’s movement, feminist scholarship and critical analysis, and women’s creative writing, receive little more attention in the mainstream media in 2013 than they did in 1983. Unlike in 1983, when WRB and our sister publications could cover just about every feminist work that appeared, these days university, small, and even trade publishers are releasing an outpouring of interesting, challenging, original books by women. Yet most of this is ignored by daily newspapers, glossy magazines, and book review publications like the New York Review of Books. When it’s not ignored, it’s often treated fleetingly or dismissively: and the well-deserved prizes and recognition that writers like Joan Didion (an NYRB regular), Adrienne Rich (lauded more enthusiastically after her death last year than she often was in life), or Louise Erdrich (winner of this year’s National Book Award) do not mitigate the situation. WRB is just about the only place where you’ll find long-form, review-essays by expert, excellent writers that thoughtfully consider the newest women’s studies scholarship and analysis. I’m regularly surprised by the lack of overlap between WRB’s coverage and that in the New York Times, for example. And WRB is by no means comprehensive: we do what we can in six issues per year, 32 pages per issue. There are a lot of worthy books out there that we miss, and getting old doesn’t mean we are getting complacent. We are always striving to do better.

Secondly, like me, Women’s Review of Books has been lucky in its parentage. Since we were founded, by Wellesley College Professor Linda Gardiner, we have been housed at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), a gender-focused, research and action organization located at the college. WCW not only provides office space, computers, and other invaluable infrastructure; the organization has also come to our rescue during financial crises, offered personal support to the staff, and cheered on our accomplishments. In 2005, when we had to suspend blogpullquoteWRB WeAreThirtypublication because we had, basically, run out of money, WCW partnered with Old City Publishing, a publisher of scholarly journals, to get Women’s Review of Books back on our feet and to restructure financially.

Since WRB’s founding, we have been developing an extensive network of writers and informal advisors among feminist scholars, activists, and journalists. As a result, as editor, I can always find a writer to say something interesting, intelligent, and even illuminating about any book we decide to assign. The journal’s reputation is such that I’ve discovered I can cold call just about any feminist, no matter how exalted, and she will take seriously my invitation to review for us.

Of course, this is in part because at WRB, our terrific writers encounter a high-quality audience of activists and avid readers, one that appreciates their ideas, grapples with them, applies them in the world, and even extends them further.

So, the sources of WRB’s fountain of youth have been our relevant mission and the support of our parent organizations, our writers, and our audience. Perhaps one day a book review publication dedicated to women’s studies and creative writing will no longer be necessary—but until then, Women’s Review of Books is here to stay.

Amy Hoffman, MFA, is editor-in-chief of the Women’s Review of Books at Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. A writer and community activist, her newest book, the memoir entitled Lies About My Family, will be published this spring by the University of Massachusetts Press.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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