“Today is yet to come/ In Arkansas./ It writhes. It writhes in awful/ Waves of brooding,” Maya Angelou writes in her poem, “My Arkansas.”
Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928, but she spent her formative years in a small town called Stamps in southwestern Arkansas with her brother, her grandmother (who she called Momma) and her uncle.
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” Angelou wrote in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The first few chapters of her autobiography deal with her life in the small Arkansas town and the ever present racial hostility. She describes in great detail certain events such as having to hide her crippled uncle during a Ku Klux Klan raid in Stamps and the harshness of young girls and dentists alike throughout the city and in her church.
But the terrors in Angelou’s life didn’t end with racism. She was abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend after she moved away from Stamps at the age of 8, and the man was murdered shortly after. Angelou was afraid that she was the cause of such violence and horror and became nearly mute. She was sent back to Stamps to escape the world that had been so viciously turned upside-down for her in St. Louis. It was during her second stay in Stamps that she met one of the most influential people in her life: Mrs. Bertha Flowers.
Flowers was the “aristocrat of Black Stamps.” Angelou saves some of her most beautiful language in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for Flowers. She describes her as always looking graceful and beautiful while also being kind and generous. It is Flowers who encouraged the young Angelou to speak again, as Flowers believed vocal communication to be an essential facet of human existence. It was in this second trip to Stamps that Angelou learned the importance of her voice and the power of words, and she would carry this with her throughout the rest of her life.
Later on in her life, Angelou fought to make a difference in the world so that people might not have to deal with the same hardships that she endured. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote against injustice in every form. Maya Angelou has become a name recognized all over the world, and it continues to be heard in her home of Arkansas.
Amy Qualls, a Harding English professor, says she believes that while Arkansas has certainly progressed since Angelou’s childhood, there is still room to grow. She believes that Angelou’s work has and will continue to make a difference in Arkansas. Qualls said she believes good education will lead to a more successful state, and with Angelou being taught in most Arkansas classrooms, this will be feasible because Angelou makes herself so relatable.
“From an English studies perspective, she uses language very beautifully,” Qualls said. “Even if you don’t share any of her experiences, like growing up in poverty or dealing with abuse or growing up as a black child in rural Arkansas, you can just appreciate the way she uses language to tell these different stories. There’s something beautiful in that, and with that, you can reach a wide, wide audience.”
Senior English major and Arkansas native Jonathon Lance also believes Angelou has shaped Arkansas’ present drastically. Lance said he thinks Angelou is so influential because of her ability to change set stereotypes from people of color and even the negative perceptions of Arkansas to the rest of the nation as well.
“Maya Angelou provided a different model for whom an Arkansan could be. She was black and an intellectual,” Lance said. “She showed the terrible things which served as the kernels of information around which public perceptions of Arkansans developed (such as) ignorance, racism (and) poverty, but she also showed a resilient community in Black Stamps which rallied around one another to overcome these barriers and which helped to give her the inner strength to find solutions to her own obstacles and challenges.
Angelou felt a brooding in Arkansas because of the injustices she felt as a child, but because of her life and her work, her legacy is a continuous statewide stirring for enhancement.