Phenomenal: Bringing Maya Angelou’s Poetry to Cleveland Single Moms
December 1, 2015 | Tara Pringle Jefferson
Note: This post, written by Tara Pringle Jefferson, was originally published on the Ansifield-Wolf Book Awards Blog. Tara is a communications consultant for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and a writer living in Northeast Ohio.
One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes – one I love so much that I gave all my friends an illustrated copy of it – is: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”
So when the keynote speaker at the first Cleveland Single Moms Conference dropped this gem mid-way through her talk, I felt an instant connection. Robyn Hill, a licensed counselor with a practice on the east side of Cleveland, made Angelou the focus of her keynote, sharing with more than 75 attendees 11 insights from the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Professor Michelle Rankins led a lunchtime seminar punctuated by two Angelou poems, “Phenomenal Woman” and “I Love the Look of Words.” The discussion among the seventeen participating women was so rich around the first poem that the group hardly had time for the second.
The group read “Phenomenal Woman” in unison, forceful and strong voices booming through the open air of the Cleveland Galleria. “When I read it, it made me think that beauty is internal,” one participant said. “When you find your inner strength,” another noted, “no one can touch you.”
Conference organizer Frechic Dickson, founder of the nonprofit From Lemons 2 Lemonade, reached out to Books@Work to create the session.
“We believed being able to have a table full of women expressing themselves through the pages of poetic literature could become a life-changing experience,” said Dickson, who oversees Books@Work for women in East Cleveland Municipal Court. “The Books@Work session allowed single moms to share their experiences, their interpretations, and most of all, their commonalities with each other through those poetic pieces.”
For her part, Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work founder and executive director said, “Not everyone works in a traditional company large enough to support Books@Work. Community programs help us meet people where they are–in their schools and libraries and, in this instance, their conference.”
The Single Moms Conference offered Books@Work the chance to reach readers who might feel isolated. “Moms spend so much time reading to their children, but they rarely have time to read for themselves – much less discuss what they read with others,” Smith said. “We wanted to change this, at least for one hour. And by selecting poetry we hoped to show that a reading session doesn’t have to belong to be nourishing for the soul and productive for the mind.”
One participant observed, “the day I became a mom was the day I let myself go and forgot that I was beautiful.” Another said, “The world says to black women ‘we are less than’ but this poem says what people should look at us and see.” For many of the women there, the poem acted as a reminder of their inner strength and their fundamental, human beauty: “this poem confirms that this is me, and it lets me be who I am.” In this way, “Phenomenal Woman” nourishes the “she-roes” in each of us, encouraging us to “help each other and pull each other up.”
Image: Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach, 1891, Musée D’Orsay, Paris [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons