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As with many poets, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me should be analyzed within the context of the author’s life. In the case of Maya Angelou, that life, recently ended in May 2014, was one of enormous critical acclaim, but much of the writing of which was the product of a disturbing past. While, as Angelou herself noted with respect to Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, this particular poem isn’t necessarily a reflection of the author’s painful early years (she was quoted as saying about this poem that it was written “for all children who whistle in the dark and who refuse to admit that they’re frightened out of their wits”), familiarity with Angelou’s 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would be very beneficial in analyzing much of her work.
Angelou, born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, spent her childhood years in the proverbial dysfunctional environment in which racism, rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend when only eight-years-old, and endemic poverty all provided the material through which a gifted writer seeking a form of expression would channel those inner demons. Angelou overcame that traumatic childhood and was able to use writing as an outlet for both the pain and the joy that defined her, and many others’ life. Specific to Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, Angelou’s poem was written as a children’s book, with illustrations accompanying the text. Its purpose, as noted in the quote above, was to help children cope with life’s little obstacles, primarily, those that exist in the imagination of children. Told from a little girl’s point of view (“That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair/(Kissy little girl/With their hair in curls”), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me does not limit itself to the supernatural. On the contrary, Angelou understood that, for all the disturbing images that are a part of daily life – “Lions on the loose,” “Dragons breathing Flame” – the world, especially of a child, includes images that are all-too-real, and can be legitimately scary:
Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn't frighten me at all.
Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don't frighten me at all.
Neighborhood gangs, pedophiles lurking around the playground, are, sadly, a part of many children’s lives. Angelou is encouraging children to be aware, but not to be paralyzed by fear. She witnessed enough for herself and would rather others weren’t subjected to the same ordeals. She also overcame obstacles endemic to certain communities, and knows others can as well.
Here is a recording of the poem being read by Maya Angelou herself:
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