When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took the stage to give the keynote speech at the closing plenary of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, I expected words that would strike all the correct notes. I was curious to hear what actions he was prepared to promise on behalf of the U.S. government.
Kerry made some important commitments, but the sincerity of U.S. government interest in affecting real change on complex issues like sexual violence has historically been questionable. When money is committed, it’s miserly as a percentage of GDP. When calls for an end to impunity are made, they are subsequently undermined by the United States’ failure to ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. I cannot but fear another round of empty promises.
In the end, however, Kerry’s words provided a renewed sense of hope by evoking the spirit and voice of a woman who survived the horror of sexual violence as a child. Poverty and racism in the United States removed any chance for justice or reparations, which could have helped her heal. But after six years of silence following her rape, Maya Angelou reclaimed her voice. With her words and actions, she became a powerful champion for equality – equality for women, African Americans, children, and people living in poverty.
It remains to be seen whether the hashtag for the conference, #TimeToAct, will be transformative or will enter the lexicon of empty phrases and broken promises.
But for those of us who will not accept inaction as an option, we can go forth each day heartened by the words of a woman who knew what it was to suffer and found the strength to not merely survive but to prevail.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.