Maya Angelou Persevered, but Many Don’t

This is the thirtieth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

There are so many reasons to love and admire Maya Angelou. Most of these stem from her novels, poetry, and civil rights work, but I’m going to pick an unusual one: she was determined to be the first black woman to conduct a cable car in San Francisco. And she succeeded at 16.

In an interview with Oprah in 2013, Angelou recalled “I saw women on the street cars with their little changer belts. They had caps with bibs on them and form-fitting jackets. I loved their uniforms. I said that is the job I want.”

Her mom, Vivian Baxter, encouraged her to apply, but Market Street Railway Company refused to let her. When her mom asked her if she knew why “I said, ‘Yes, because I’m a Negro.’”

Her mom knew how much she wanted the job and told her to “go get it,” advising her to “Go down everyday and be there before the secretaries get there and read your big Russian books” (she was reading Dostoevsky). “And sit there until they leave.” After sitting there for two weeks, Angelou’s ambition and determination finally paid off and she was invited to apply and got the job.

While this is an interesting tidbit from Angelou’s life—which has been chronicled in several of her books, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mom & Me & Mom—it still resonates today. Here we are, 76 years later, and black people—especially black women—are still disadvantaged when it comes to applying for jobs.

Angelou’s perseverance in the face of bigotry is laudable, but it’s incredibly sad that she and so many others have needed to go to such lengths just to get their feet in the door. We must work to change this.

And so I urge you to get involved in your company’s hiring (and promotion) process. Agitate for change. Eliminate bias. Expand the pool of talent to which you advertise positions. Make sure interview loops are diverse. Fight for the advancement of underrepresented colleagues. Take an active role in dismantling the systems of white supremacy (and misogyny) that continue to deny access (and advancement) to so many amazing people.


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