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Maya Angelou vs. THOT Police
Imani Brammer

In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death on May 28, 2014, as the masses grieved, sent condolences, and quoted her on the internet, one strange group took the opportunity to belittle women. Tweets, Facebook statuses and Tumblr re-blogs contrasted Angelou with THOT, which stands for That Ho Over There. Thot, like “ho,” “slut,” and so many other slurs, is used to denigrate women and deem them worthless.

People, male and female, posted things like, “Shout out to all the females that’s tryna post Maya Angelou quotes. Just the other day ya’ll was posting twerk videos. Once a thot, always a thot,” and “Stop quoting phenomenal woman, cuz ya’ll out here thotting…phenomenally.” The message seemed to be that you couldn’t have a body and a brain.

My first reactions when reading these statements were frustration and bewilderment. How could so many people be making such closed-minded remarks? Sex is a natural instinct. Why is something so natural so scorned when done by females?

It seemed that some people automatically assume that someone like Angelou—a dancer with Alvin Ailey, actress, the first female African-American cable car operator (at 14!), newspaper editor, civil rights activist who worked alongside Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., professor, poet who read at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and best-selling author—must have been virginal and “good.” In fact, Angelou was a teenage single mother, a stripper, a drug user, and, briefly, a prostitute. The costumes Angelou wore in her nightclub routines showed belly and a whole lot of leg. If she were young now, and already famous, would the public label her a thot?

Proud of Her Past

Angelou took power away from the 1950s and ’60s precursors to “thot”—damning words like “unwed mother” or “tramp”—because she was open about everything she did. She did not hide her past; in the second of her seven autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name, Angelou wrote her history about being a young mother and juggling many different odd jobs, including “a shake dancer in night clubs, fry cook in hamburger joints [and] dinner cook in a Creole restaurant.” Prostituting came about because Angelou needed to make extra cash.

In the book, she explained how she was involved in a prostitution business with two lesbians. She later became a prostitute herself for an older black man who liked her to dress in a schoolgirl outfit. She disclosed this in Gather Together, published in 1974, after she was famous. She did not make herself out to be bigger than what she did, but she was big because she contained all these selves.

image by YC-Art Dept

If you’re thinking “How could she have been such a prestigious and wise person if she was a prostitute?” the answer lies in her life. She’s allowed, because every woman, just like a man, is allowed to be many different things at once.

Angelou wasn’t shy during interviews and owned up to everything. In an online interview with “The Teen Talking Circle Project,” Angelou discussed her past as a prostitute. She wrote: “Too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong.’ They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name. Meaning that all those grown people…who lie to the children can gather together in my name and I will tell them the truth.” This is a great message for the thot police.

Embracing All of Herself

She said in this same interview that until we overcome negative perceptions of ourselves, we can never grow. She added, “Now mind you, when a larger society sees [people] as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thick or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.” She became such an inspiration to many because she did exactly what she advised: She embraced her flaws and her mistakes—as well as her race and gender, not always popular—and accepted them as a part of her instead of despising herself.

Maya Angelou might not have chosen prostitution or using drugs if she’d had more money when she was young. And yet, she said, these experiences cultivated a rich life for her. It was eye-opening to see that Angelou did degrading things and was still such an honorable human being. “Good” does not come in one form. Angelou’s life shows us that unorthodoxy can be part of a beautiful masterpiece. She went through terrifying things throughout her lifetime, and she remained, as she put it in her poem, a “phenomenal woman/That’s me.”

Angelou’s wisdom is even more inspiring because it comes from a place of darkness. Like Angelou, I don’t expect my times of darkness to keep me from my life goals. I’ve made many mistakes, none of which I am ashamed of. The experience of those mistakes helps me to move forward.

Reading those hateful posts the day she died made me angry. It’s absurd that we are still shamed for being sexual. I am a sexual being and I enjoy that. I’ve been a fan of Maya Angelou since childhood and that didn’t stop once I started having sex.

A woman has every right to live sexually and freely while simultaneously doing things that “virtuous women” do—create art, fight for political change, mother children, and otherwise be a full human being. As a 22-year-old black woman striving to become my best self, I am inspired by Angelou because she overcame her own controversies without ever disowning them.

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