Phenomenal Woman - Maya Angelou

Yesterday witnessed the passing of Maya Angelou, an incredible writer with an early personal history that few would wish to have but which continued to influence her writing throughout her life.  'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' was the book that brought her to the attention of the world, dealing with her early life including rape, sexism and identity. She published a further 35 books including poetry, essays and autobiographies. 

The works of Angelou are such that should be taught in schools as part of the English Literature curriculum, and indeed they were in the UK in the past, and remain so in the US. However, with reports that Gove, the Education Secretary, has been involved in overhauling the GCSE English Lit. cucrriculum - removing American classics such as  'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Of Mice and Men' - I fear that Angelou's voice may be denied to future generations unless they have enlightened parents, exam boards and tutors who are more than happy to raise two fingers to an Education Secretary who is in dire need of some education himself.

The Sunday Times reported that "Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included. It was studied by 90 per cent of teenagers taking English literature GCSE in the past. Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic. In the new syllabus 70-80 per cent of the books are from the English canon." 

As a Humanities graduate with post-graduate focus on English literature I am concerned about the future for my subject. I have loved reading from an early age, but the forced study of works that are pretty uninspiring to most 11-16 year olds turned me off reading what I perceived to be classics for quite some time. That was a shame, but an O level syllabus (I am that old) that looked almost without exception at Shakespeare (who I still prefer not to read, apart from in sonnet form), Chaucer (who I did like 'cos it had rude bits!, and still do but for more grown-up reasons now), Jane Austen and a Bronte or three, was narrow, limiting and, for me at least, generally soporific.

What seems strange is that the Department for Education issued the following response to the criticism of the new curriculum: “In the past, English literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow. We published the new subject content for English literature in December.

“It doesn't ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.

“That is only the minimum pupils will be expected to learn. It is now up to exam boards to design new GCSEs, which must then be accredited by the independent exams regulator Ofqual.”

"in the past it was too narrow".., yes!, the past when I suffered as outlined above, not the recent past where works written in English, regardless of the origins of the writer, were studied; where issues and ideas that are relevant (and recognisable) are raised and discussed, allowing a study of text and context to take place. Granted, the statement above does allow for post-1914 fiction or drama to be included, but with the caveat that it was written in the British Isles. This smacks of the inward-looking, navel-gazing that English Lit., and Britain, needs to move away from. I hope that the exam boards have the wit to choose some 'un-British' works that just happened to be penned on our collection of damp isles.

Before pro-canon-ites come charging in on their white steed of indignation, I am not suggesting that the canon has fired its last shot; instead I am suggesting that perhaps the canon needs to be revised. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen et al do not need to be removed but they need to taught alongside other works, be they post-colonial, feminist or otherwise. The subject is English Literature, not British Literature. By limiting (yep, that will have the same effect as narrowing, Gove) works to predominantly British writers - I did notice the "19th century novel written anywhere"  - you are limiting the education of the generation that will one day govern the country. If Gove's apparently limited reading is anything to go by, the country is in for troubled times educationally, and teenagers will miss out on introductions to a varied array of talented writers such as Maya Angelou.

© Deborah Cater

Phenomenal Woman  by Maya Angelou

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
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.
Then 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
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

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 of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me. 

Maya Angelou


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