Amanda Gorman

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021.

| AFP

Talking power with my sisters: from Maya Angelou to Gorman

What you need to know:

  • Amanda Gorman’s appearance was strongly reminiscent of the late Maya Angelou at the Inauguration of Bill Clinton in January 1993.
  • Another female poet, Elizabeth Alexander, performed “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s Inauguration in 2009.

I have been spending quality time this week with women whom I love passionately, doing what we enjoy doing most in life. As they have been doing for over a quarter century now, my sisters at FEMRITE (the Uganda Women Writers Association) organized a writing workshop in Kampala to kick off the New Year, and they invited me to facilitate it alongside Commonwealth Literature prize-winning writer Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish and Other Stories.

Do not ask me why I never win prizes myself. I think I have suggested to you before that I am often so busy judging and picking the prize-winners that I hardly ever find myself at the receiving end. That is the price you pay for being a literary critic with pretensions to being a creative writer as well.

Those, however, may be lame excuses (visingizio, as the Waswahili call them ). Ghanaian Ama Atta Aidoo, for example, did go ahead and win that very Commonwealth Prize award, with her Changes novel, after judging and awarding the same prize (with my assistance) to Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. The bottom line is that I should improve the quality (and quantity) of my creative writing if I am also to be a winner one of these days.

Be that as it may, here was I ecstatic, with Doreen and just about a score of our other sisters, Monday through Thursday this week, talking and doing creative writing as only those amazing women can do it. This particular encounter was particularly poignant for me because it was the first one we were having fully face to face, though with our masks up and other precautions still in place, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. My last close encounter with the sisters had been an almost entirely virtual one, with me sharing poetry tips with them over Zoom from our Mother House studio in Kampala, in October 2020.

This week, however, my mind was already wandering over wider horizons to other sisters and other poems across years, decades and oceans. Call these the confessions of a brother who cannot have enough of either sisters or poems. Thus it was that, even as I was “sororising” (my coinage for the female form of “fraternising”) with FEMRITE in the balmy greenery of Kampala, my mind was making repetitive leaps into and out of the wintry climes of Washington D.C. and its neighbourhoods, or “hoods”, as the locals call them.

Do you remember Amanda Gorman, the African-American young woman from California? Just about this time last year, she electrified the world with the performance of her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, at President Joe Biden’s Inauguration. Gorman, as you are aware, was the latest, and arguably the most colourful, in the now long tradition of poet-performers at US Democratic Presidential inaugurations, dating back to Robert Frost’s performance at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

To most of us, however, with African roots, Amanda Gorman’s appearance on the inauguration rostrum was strongly reminiscent of the appearance there of the late Maya Angelou, with her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, at the Inauguration of Bill Clinton in January 1993. (Another female poet, Elizabeth Alexander, performed “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s Inauguration in 2009).

Maya Angelou

American poet the late Maya Angelou.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It just so happens that, as we celebrate the first anniversary of Amanda Gorman’s emergence, Maya Angelou is honoured with an appearance on the quarter (dollar) coin of the US currency, the first African American woman to be accorded that distinction. This is no mean gesture to us humble reciters and scribblers of the word. Putting Maya Angelou in the class of queens, kings, presidents and other great ones who have over the centuries had their images on the currencies of the world, underlines “the power of the pen”, as our FEMRITE motto has it. Most importantly, the recognition acknowledges the struggle of the Black woman, in Africa and in the Diaspora, for self-realisation.

Maya Angelou’s best-known book, to me, is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The suggestive significance of this title is applicable to not only Angelou’s famously difficult life story but also to the predicament of millions of women in Africa, America and elsewhere. Ask the Afghans for further proof if you need any. The “singing”, in Maya’s, Amanda’s and FEMRITE’S case, is the writing, the powerful wielding of the pen to speak out against oppression and ensure that the woman keeps “rising”, as Maya Angelou has it in one of her poems.

Many people assumed, plausibly, that Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” alluded to the horrific Capitol Hill events that preceded the swearing-in of Joe Biden. There is, however, a further coded significance in that “hill”, for all challenged and oppressed people, the hill being symbolic of obstacles and hindrances. Is it an exaggeration to say that in our still rabidly “macho” patriarchal societies, life for the woman, and especially the Black woman, is an “uphill task”?

Coincidentally, my shakingly-titled poem, “W-W-Woman”, which I presented to FEMRITE during our 20th anniversary celebrations in 2016, prominently mentions a “hill”. Its three concluding lines urge the woman to have a will and “steely nerve (to) ascend the craggy hill, assert your power, pain and pointed pact to be, to do, to grow, be free, impact.

Maybe my hill and Amanda Gorman’s are not coincidental after all. In any case, my poem, which we read and discussed at our workshop, will prove to my FEMRITE sisters that I was not cheating on them as I fantasised about Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman in my escapades. I was only expanding the sisterhood or sorority.

Finally, give yourself a treat. Read, listen to or watch one of the pieces I have mentioned here, for your enjoyment. These are the luxuries of our gloriously multi-medial world. Maya Angelou is irresistible as she reads her poems, like “And Still I Rise”, beloved of tennis star Serena Williams.

Keep safe, and keep rising.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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