Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Northend Agent's  News Articles >

Meeting Dr. Maya Angelou

By LaResse Harvey, BSW

June 06, 2012

My journey to meeting Dr. Maya Angelou started in a prison cell at York Correctional Institute in 1995. I was attending an “Overcoming Obstacles” eight week session coordinated and instructed by Ms. Dottie Green, the vice principal of the school. Ms. Green began the class by saying, “You are awesomely and wonderfully made in the eyesight of God.” I was thinking that God had forgotten about me. The torment and torture of my life wasn’t over, perhaps I deserved this ongoing abuse because of what I did to cause me to be in prison.

As Ms. Green continued her speech of why we are beautiful creations of God. I was handed a stack of papers and told, take one sheet and pass the rest on. Ms. Green then gave the final instructions of the night, “I want you to memorize this poem. You each have one week. When we meet again you will recite it for the class.” I gathered my paperwork and notebook, stood up and walked out the classroom headed back to my cell. “What does Ms. Green know about me anyway? I am stuck in a cell with a woman who continues to sexually, verbally, mentally and emotionally abuse me. Every time I try to tell someone what is happening to me no one believes me,” I say to myself. My thoughts are consumed with the reality of my situation.

Jay is my roommate/cell mate. Jay was actually born at Niantic, when it was a farm for wayward women. Jay has returned back to Niantic at least 20 times that I have counted since she was 13 years old. Currently, I am Jay’s woman. To survive I pretend I love her and everything is okay. Someday's are better than others. I thought to myself just maybe Jay will just want to talk about the class and nothing else. It turned out not to be one of the better days.

The next day, Jay spent most of the morning out of the cell. I decided to take the paper from class and start to memorize it. It was a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou. I read the first stanza, wondering how to memorize something I didn’t believe about myself. I was Jay’s sex slave, verbal and emotional punching bag. I was a prisoner in a female correctional facility. How can I be a phenomenal woman? These were my darkest days. Moments of suicidal thoughts and mental breakdowns with no glimpse of hope. Little did I know the power of this one poem would transform and liberate my life.

I reread the first line…”Pretty women wonder where my secret lies? I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model size,” this verse means Dr. Angelou is talking to what society deems as a pretty woman. You know the skinny, long hair, shapely type women that I will never be. I began to realize that perhaps I could be a phenomenal woman. So, with each line I began creating gestures for each word until I embodied the poem. I became Phenomenal Woman. It was at this moment I made the following statement: One day I will meet Dr. Maya Angelou and say ‘Thank you’.

Phenomenal Woman gave me the courage to tell the new counselor that I was being abused by my cellmate. This led to me being moved to another building with no further contact between Jay and me. This poem helped me to see myself differently and appreciate my intelligence, my beauty and my own gifts. Those words rang through my being during my trial as I awaited my verdict. I was better than my surroundings, my past, my present and I was destined for greatness. “I’m a Woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal Woman that’s me.” I carried ‘Phenomenal Woman’ poem with me beyond prison. When I was searching for a job and attending college. When I used the poem to teach middle school girls at YWCA S.T.R.I.V.E program in New Britain about self-esteem. When I stood before the Judiciary Committee the first time as community leader at A Better Way Foundation in 2006. I carried the poem with me every day, everywhere in all situations.

I carried ‘Phenomenal Woman’ with me as I stood in line behind the stage at the Bushnell on Thursday, May 10, 2012 waiting to meet Dr. Maya Angelou. I stood there thinking about my daughter, Asiana and the video I made for her and my son, reciting the poem when I was in prison. I thought about Reverend Higgins and her group, “God’s Glorious Girls.” How, I shared the story and poem with them. I saw Reverend Higgins two days after meeting Maya Angelou and shared my experience with her. She remembered my statement, ‘When I meet Dr. Maya Angelou. I am going to thank her for writing this poem.” I thought about Mr. Jones and his belief in me to do work on drug policy and criminal justice reform. Then I looked to the side of me and saw Janice Flemming. A woman I have worked with for over 6 years sharing this moment with me. I carried everyone and every situation into that room as I turned the corner and there she was Dr. Maya Angelou.

It was her, Dr. Maya Angelou in all her beauty and strength. I was visiting an elder I admired from a far and wanted to know more from her. I shook her hand and began to tell the story I shared with you, the reader. I told her I have two Associates degrees, three college certificates and a Bachelor’s in Social Work. I told Dr. Angelou that I worked for a non-profit working on Social Justice and started a nonprofit lobbying company, Civic Trust Public Lobbying Company. I told Dr. Angelou thank you for your courage and your words. Dr. Angelou said this to me, “Stand tall. Do not lean on anyone not even me.” I knew in 1995 I would meet her and tell her thank you and I did. What she left me with was a new mission...be a rainbow in a cloud of someone else's’ life.

LaResse Harvey, BSW

Founder/Executive Director

Civic Trust Public Lobbying Company



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.

Reprinted with permission of the NorthEnd Agent's. To view other stories in this newspaper, browse their website at http://northendagents.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?