(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Maya Angelou’s books of poetry, like her groundbreaking autobiographies, have topped best-seller lists. The first printing of the 32-page Amazing Peace was 230,000—a record for a book of poetry. Readers who are impatient with the ambiguity and complexity of much modern verse find Angelou’s poetry disarmingly casual and accessible on the first reading.

Although Angelou (then known as Marguerite Johnson) received only a modest public education in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, she overcame sexual and spousal abuse and prostitution to become an autobiographer, poet, and teacher. She has become nationally known and respected for her work, which is more political and populist than that of many writers.

The political overtones in her work reflect her long history as a civil rights activist. She was appointed coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1959-1960) and worked on civil rights committees for Gerald Ford (1975-1976) and Jimmy Carter (1978-1979).

Angelou’s prominence in the arena of civil rights led to her being called on to create special occasion verse for political events. For Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration on January 20, 1993, Angelou composed and performed “On the Pulse of Morning.” At the time, the United States poet laureate was the scholarly African American poet Rita Dove, but Angelou’s triumphant spirit more broadly represented the Democratic platform. Angelou received a Spoken Word Grammy for the White House reading. Two years later, Angelou delivered “A Brave and Startling Truth” for the United Nations’ fiftieth anniversary.

During the White House’s Sixty-Third Annual Pageant of Peace on December 1,...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Angelou, Maya. Collected Autobiographies. New York: Modern Library, 2004. A compilation of Angelou’s six acclaimed autobiographies, unabridged.

Angelou, Maya. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Reprinted interviews from 1971 to 1988 reveal Angelou’s indomitable, nonconformist spirit and insistent survivor’s drive as she created her identity and found her place in America.

Hagen, Lyman B. Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Hagen aspires to validate Angelou’s prominent status in his effusive presentation of “layers and depth” within her eclectic canon of messages or “sermons.” Bibliography, index.

Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Lupton discusses the structural and literary development in each volume of Angelou’s five-volume autobiography, arguing that Angelou transcends both the genre and the African American experience. Bibliography, index.

McPherson, Dolly. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. A critical study that comprehensively examines topics including the circuitous journey, homecoming, maternal angst, personal chaos, and epiphanies in five autobiographies. Bibliography.

Saher, Annette D., Sebastian M. Brenninkmeyer, and Daniel C. O’Connell. “Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem: ’On the Pulse of Morning.’” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 26, no. 4 (July, 1997): 449-463. A technical, fascinating linguistic analysis charting how the inaugural poem’s true meaning is conveyed only through the unpredictably rich sounds and rhythms of Angelou’s performance.