In an interview, Angelou described her autobiographical style in the following way: “I’ve used, or tried to use, the form of the Black minister in storytelling so that each event I write about has a beginning, middle, and an end. And I have tried to make the selections graduate so that each episode is a level, whether of narration or drama, well always dramatic, but a level of comprehension like a staircase.” Angelou’s autobiographies surely demonstrate this narrative and dramatic approach, and her poems also suggest the narrator and playwright at work.
Her six volumes of autobiography reveal a narrator’s strong voice as well as a playwright’s ability to set a stage, introduce characters, and portray the conflicts and tensions among those characters as they interact with one another and deal with their own internal conflicts and challenges. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1970 and has been followed by subsequent self-portraits, including 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). Each volume has the Angelou touch of storytelling and dramatic rendition, and each also has the incremental sense of movement toward Angelou’s idea of “a level of comprehension like a staircase.”
Additionally, the volumes deal with an important theme for Angelou: survival. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for example, narrates the placement and displacement of the author as a southern black girl and demonstrates that her experiences of racial discrimination, rape, and numerous other victimizations did not destroy her; on the contrary, they emboldened and strengthened her, thus committing her to survival at all costs.
In her second volume of autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, the scene shifts, but the message remains the same: Young mother though she is, seventeen-year-old parent though she is, she must survive and triumph over the various discriminations, mostly racial, that she endures. In a book that has a beginning, middle, and end—a structure that Angelou claims exists in all of her autobiographies—the end is an especially poignant reminder of survival. Learning a lesson from a drug addict, Angelou proclaims: “I had walked the precipice and seen it all; and at the critical moment, one man’s generosity pushed me safely away from the edge. . . . I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I’d never lose it again.”
The following four autobiographies continue this emphasis upon survival—whether it is viewed through Angelou’s experiences traveling with the Porgy and Bess production throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, as narrated in Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas; through her experiences in New York coordinating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for Martin Luther King, Jr., as narrated in The Heart of a Woman; or through Angelou’s quest to find her identity in Africa, as narrated in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. Seeking survival, physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, in all six volumes of autobiography, Angelou as narrator and playwright tells her stories and sets the stage for her dramatic productions.
While it might seem that Angelou’s poetry departs from these narrative and dramatic impulses, as the volumes are, after all, verse and not prose, the opposite is actually true. Like her autobiographical narratives and dramas, the poems also tell stories and present scenes from human dramas. Perhaps the best example of this appears in Angelou’s fourth volume of poetry, a collection of songlike poems published in 1983 titled Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? The poem “Caged Bird,” an obvious echo of Angelou’s best-known autobiography, I...
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