Angelou, Maya (Feminism in Literature)
Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary African American literature, Angelou is best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), the first of several autobiographical books. Angelou's literary works have generated critical and popular interest in part because they depict her triumph over formidable social obstacles and her struggle to achieve a sense of identity and self-acceptance. Such themes tie Angelou's writings closely to the concerns of the feminist literary movement. Angelou has also been noted for her vivid portrayals of the strong women in her life—notably Annie Henderson, the paternal grandmother who helped raise her, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a genteel black woman who helped Angelou recover her speech, and her mother, Vivian Baxter. Critics have praised Angelou's dynamic prose style, poignant humor, and illumination of African American history and consciousness through her portrayal of personal experiences. Angelou has stated, "I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at and still survive."
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Bailey, was a doorkeeper and naval dietician; her mother, Vivian, was a nurse and realtor. Angelou's family lived in Missouri, Arkansas, and California during her childhood. Angelou attended public schools and studied music, dance, and drama privately. From 1954 to 1955, she appeared in a twenty-two-nation tour of the musical Porgy and Bess that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Angelou moved to New York to pursue her acting career and performed in several off-Broadway plays including Calypso Heatwave in 1957 and The Blacks in 1960. Also in 1960, she accepted a position as an assistant administrator in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana in Africa. Angelou taught and performed in several plays at the university before returning to the U.S. in 1966. In 1970, Angelou published her first book, the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which focuses on her struggles throughout her formative years and concludes with the birth of her son, Guy, in 1945. In addition to publishing, Angelou continued to produce, direct, and act in stage productions. In 1974 she directed the film All Day Long and, in 1988, directed the film Down in the Delta. Angelou has held teaching positions at several universities, including the University of California and the University of Kansas. She holds honorary degrees from Smith College, Mills College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University. Angelou also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971), a Tony Award nomination for best supporting actress in a 1977 production of Roots, and the North Carolina Award in Literature in 1992. In 1993 Angelou performed a reading of her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
After I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou published five subsequent volumes in her autobiographical series: Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002). These works trace her psychological, spiritual, and political odyssey as she emerged from a disturbing and oppressive childhood to become a prominent figure in contemporary American literature. Angelou's quest for self-identity and emotional fulfillment resulted in a number of extraordinary experiences, among them encounters with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Angelou also describes her involvement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the United States and in Africa, her developing relationship with her son, and the hardships associated with lower-class American life. All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes is distinctive in its examination of black America's intellectual and emotional connections with post-colonial Africa. In this work, Angelou describes her four-year stay in Ghana where she worked as a freelance writer and editor. Angelou finds much to venerate about Africa, but gradually realizes that although she has cultural ties to the land of her ancestors, she is nevertheless distinctly American and in many ways isolated from traditional African society. A Song Flung up to Heaven begins in 1964 when Angelou returns from Africa to the United States. The book covers her plans to assist Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. with various civil rights activities, and her feelings of loss when both are assassinated. The narrative also recounts her experiences as a performer and writer in African American theatre, her friendships with James Baldwin and other writers, and personal anecdotes including details of a painful love affair. The story ends with Angelou putting pen to paper to begin writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou's poetry, in which she combines terse lyrics with jazz rhythms, addresses social and political issues relevant to African Americans and challenges the validity of traditional American values and myths. In "America," for example, she rejects the notion that justice is available to all Americans, citing such deep-rooted problems as racism and poverty. Angelou directed national attention to humanitarian concerns with her poem "On the Pulse of Morning." In this poem, Angelou calls for recognition of the human failings pervading American history and a renewed national commitment to unity and social improvement.
Some critics have faulted Angelou's poetry as superficial, citing its dependence on alliteration, heavy use of short lines, and conventional vocabulary. Others have praised the honest and candid nature of her poetry, lauding the strength and personal pride within her verse. Scholars have asserted that Angelou's struggle to create a sense of identity and self-acceptance in both her poetry and prose aligns her firmly within the feminist literary tradition. R. B. Stepto has noted the strong female presence in poems such as "And Still I Rise," commenting that "the 'I' of Angelou's refrain is obviously female and … a woman forthright about the sexual nuances of personal and social struggle."
Although some critics fault Angelou's autobiographies as lacking in moral complexity and universality, others praise her narrative skills and impassioned responses to the challenges in her life. Many reviewers have acknowledged The Heart of a Woman as sharply focused on women's struggles and issues, and as a self-examination of a mature writer and mother. In a review of this volume, Adam David Miller (see Further Reading) stated, "What she keeps constant throughout the book is that it is the account of a black W-O-M-A-N's life." Overall, while critical response to Angelou's autobiographies has been more favorable than reactions to her poetry, critics generally agree that her writing is an important contribution not only to the autobiography genre, but to American literature as well.
The Least of These (play) 1966
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography) 1970
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (poetry) 1971
Georgia, Georgia (screenplay) 1972
All Day Long (screenplay) 1974
Gather Together in My Name (autobiography) 1974
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (poetry) 1975
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (autobiography) 1976
And Still I Rise (poetry) 1978
The Heart of a Woman (autobiography) 1981
Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (poetry) 1983
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (autobiography) 1986
Now Sheba Sings the Song (poetry) 1987
I Shall Not Be Moved (poetry) 1990
Life Doesn't Frighten Me (poetry) 1993
On the Pulse of Morning (poetry) 1993
Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (essays) 1993
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (poetry) 1994
My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (juvenilia) 1994
Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (poetry) 1994
Soul Looks back in...
(The entire section is 155 words.)
SOURCE: Angelou, Maya. “Woman Work.” In And Still I Rise, pp. 31-2. New York: Random House, 1978.
In the following poem, the narrator enumerates her many daily chores, juxtaposing them against pleas to Nature as her source of relief from the domestic burdens.
I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got the shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.
Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.
Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
Till I can rest again.
Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.
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SOURCE: Lupton, Mary Jane. "Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity." Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 2 (summer 1990): 257-76.
In the following essay, Lupton analyzes the plot, characters, and structure of Angelou's first five autobiographies, noting the themes of hope and renewal at the conclusion of each work.
Now my problem I have is I love life, I love living life and I love the art of living, so I try to live my life as a poetic adventure, everything I do from the way I keep my house, cook, make my husband happy, or welcome my friends, raise my son; everything is part of a large canvas I am creating, I am living beneath.
(Chrisman interview 46)
This energetic statement from a 1977 interview with Maya Angelou merely hints at the variety of roles and experiences which sweep through what is presently her five-volume autobiographical series: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), TheHeartofaWoman (1981), and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986).1 It is fitting that Angelou, so adept at metaphor, should compare her "poetic adventure" to the act of painting: "…...
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SIDONIE SMITH (ESSAY DATE 1974)
SOURCE: Smith, Sidonie. "Black Womanhood." In Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography, pp. 121-36. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.
In the following essay, Smith analyzes the plot and characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, while also examining the themes of quests for self-acceptance, love, and identity in the book.
But put on your crown, my queen.
Eldridge Cleaver, Soul On Ice
Eldridge Cleaver concludes his spiritual journey when he is prepared to greet the black queen in the voice of the new "Eldridge," the black man who is secure in both his physical and intellectual masculinity. But the black woman has also to make her own spiritual journey, for the Amazon, as Cleaver labels her,
is in a peculiar position. Just as her man has been deprived of his manhood, so she has been deprived of her full womanhood. Society has decreed that the Ultrafeminine, the woman of the elite, is the goddess on the pedestal. The Amazon is the personification of the rejected domestic component, the woman on whom "dishpan hands" seems not out of character. The worship and respect which both the...
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SHIRLEY NELSON GARNER (ESSAY DATE 1991)
SOURCE: Garner, Shirley Nelson. "Constructing the Mother: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Theorists and Women Autobiographers." In Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities, edited by Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy, pp. 86-93. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
In the following excerpt, Garner focuses on The Heart of a Woman as a work that places mothers in a social and cultural context.
Setting women autobiographers beside these therapists and theorists [D. W. Winnicott, Nancy Chodorow, and others], I think of several who deal with mothers: Maxine Hong Kingston, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, and Kim Chernin. Published between 1975 and 1983, The Woman Warrior, The Heart of a Woman, Zami, and In My Mother's House, like the more recent theoretical works I have been describing, show the influence of the Women's Movement in their focus on mothers or mothers and daughters, who tend to be less prominent in earlier autobiographies by women. Another feature these autobiographers have in common is that their mothers—and sometimes their fathers—are immigrants. This is not true, of course, of Maya Angelou's mother; coming from a poor, southern black family, however, she, like the immigrant mothers, is outside the...
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Gerry, Thomas M. F. Contemporary Canadian and U.S. Women of Letters: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1993, 287 p.
Bibliography of North American women writers.
Lisandrelli, Elaine Slivinski. Maya Angelou: More Than a Poet. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1996, 128 p.
Biography of Angelou with lengthy bibliographical index.
Braxton, Joanne M., ed. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 162 p.
Collection of critical essays on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Burr, Zofia. "Maya Angelou on the Inaugural Stage." In Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou, pp. 180-94, 219-21. Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Comparison of Robert Frost's reading of his poem "The Gift Outright" at President Kennedy's 1961 inauguration to Angelou's reading of "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
Kent, George E. "Maya Angelou's...
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