I Shall Not Be Moved

Maya Angelou’s poetry draws on the rhythms of jazz, blues, and spirituals; despite its tough look at the hard facts of black life, it is ultimately forgiving and celebratory. Angelou’s long poem “Our Grandmothers,” perhaps her best, is emblematic of the entire work. It features the refrain, “I shall not be moved,” epitomizing the love and determination of black women. The first woman who appears in this poem is significantly nameless, a slave mother running away with her children because the master is going to sell her and divide the family. Other women also appear as Angelou moves from the days of the slave trade to the modern-day black woman standing in the welfare line. Each of these women, however, has enormous resistance and resilience.

Angelou sympathizes as well with other struggling members of society. Her poems about the working poor are especially poignant—the girl who asserts, “Even minimal people/ can’t survive on minimum wage,” and Coleridge Jackson, a warehouse worker who is berated and diminished daily by his “little/ white bag of bones” boss.

Yet Angelou has the largeness of spirit to forgive even the former slave state of Virginia. She uses its natural beauty to signify the change, writing that dogwood blossoms form “round my/ head ringlets/ of forgiveness.” Indeed, although Angelou presents a harshly realistic picture of black life, she also sees the humor, joy, and triumph of it. The final poem is a dirge for dead friends. She first mourns their loss, then looks at the larger picture, finding that “after a period peace blooms.” Finally, because they were, “We can be. Be and be/ better. ...” The entire volume is a triumph of overcoming.