Maya Angelou and The Paradox of the Sacred Whore


Editor’s Note: Dr. Maya Angelou joined the world of the ancestors on May 28th, 2014. In celebration of her life and work and in keeping with our mission, I thought it would be useful to ask several sex radical women, Akynos ShekeraAmanda Love and Dr. Loraine Hutchins, to share their thoughts about Dr. Angelou, who had among her many professional experiences worked as a Calypso singer, shake dancer, madame, and sex worker, highlighting this work and making connections to their own experience and work. The results were these wonderful articles. 

Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
– Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”

Dear Maya Angelou,

Your passing in May sent me back to reading your work including Letters To My Daughter. I knew your positive triumph over your abusive childhood, the outrages of racism and poverty are what people praised you for, but some of the most intense contradictions of your early life escaped me until your departure, from this earth, brought them to the fore.

I knew you were a teen mother, but not that you were the first black female streetcar conductor in early 1940s San Francisco. Nor that you worked as a prostitute and became a madam for several lesbian prostitutes. Several of the obituaries written about you say that part of your impulse to get pregnant so young was “to prove [you] weren’t a lesbian.”

Wow. Is it possible you understood what it was like for me, a young woman who followed in your footsteps, trying to understand the contradictions between loving women and loving men, between sexuality and spirituality?

It’s clear that you explored world religions much of your life and embraced your own kind of Christianity in your later years, a kind of Christianity I think I would like, the kind that is more forgiving than judgmental, the kind that leaves judging up to God and implores humans to focus on love.

Why do I think you perhaps understood the incredible paradox of the Sacred Whore that has haunted me these last fifteen years of my life? What you shared of your wisdom about men and sexuality, abuse and healing, resonates deeply with what I have learned about the Sacred Prostitute when I was first studying her. As a doctoral student, I turned to queer, feminist sacred sexuality as a topic after a life lived on the edges of erotic and spiritual explorations, wanting to know why this image of an erotic female deity attracted me in the abstract and yet often repelled me in the physical—like when she was embodied by real life women who acted/served as erotic healers in this broken and sexually-obsessed contemporary Western world.

I investigated the history and discovered the various cultural myths and chronicles of erotic priestesses who ran the ancient goddess temples—ministering to devotees with their bodies as well as their spirits. I dialogued with The Goddess about the paradox of sex and spirit, how much we each wrestle with our own conflicts about our bodily desires and our spiritual hunger, as we live our lives.

Yet at the same time I was doing this research I was not feeling safe or happy, sexually, in my own life, much less spiritually. I was leading a sacred sex group. I was working as a sex coach. Doing this work brought me deeper and deeper into my own memories of childhood sexual abuse and even sexual abuse as an adult that I thought I’d both suppressed and also already worked through.

In a beautiful interview originally printed in In Context magazine #43, you talked about working with young girls who’ve been sexually abused—listening deeply, tenderly and respectfully to their stories and helping them, eventually, find the power within themselves to forgive themselves for what happened to them, and later, if possible, to forgive the adults who hurt them, not for the adults’ sake, but for their own. I work with young people today who come to me struggling with their own experiences, often, with sexual abuse and often being members of sexual minority groups. In the context of abuse and recovery, calling sex sacred and holy is a very perplexing thing. As it should be, because it just is.

I am still drawn to the enigma of the Sacred Whore and what she represents for many of us in understanding and sorting out the desires and meanings in our lives. So, Maya, I go back to your words in that interview, “people think they have something to lose and the truth is they have everything to gain in trying to love somebody. You must love yourself first, of course, and you must protect yourself when you can. Protect yourself so that nobody overrides you, overrules you, or steps on you.”

I call upon the concept of the holy harlot because it is exactly this paradox of profane and divine, body and spirit that many of us seek to make peace with all our lives. She is called Sacred Whore for a reason – to bring that contradiction right to the fore and to look at it carefully.

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.

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.
– Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”

Maya Angelou, you inspire me because you tell the truth and are unafraid of it. Thanks for being here, for being you, for walking among us, and for teaching us that contradictions abound, especially the ones around what’s sexy and what’s sacred. We are all broken and healing, and it’s all fine.

2 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Pagans of Color and commented:
    It is so often a hidden history that we are denied as people of color; as magical people and to see it not only honored but without shame (for Angelou was NEVER ashamed of her work, quite the opposite) that is the refresher we need in our live. We need to know that we can own our sexuality. That we can own the bodies we inhabit. We can wrest that power from the ghost of imperialism, colonization, and supremacy to a standard we know was not designed for us, or includes us.

    This is part of our body, the legacy of our magic on earth. Embrace it!

    Like

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