Maya Angelou Angelou, Maya (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(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.

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

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.

General Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)

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: "… everything is part of a large canvas I am creating, I am living beneath." Like an unfinished painting, the autobiographical series is an ongoing creation, in a form that rejects the finality of a restricting frame. Its continuity is achieved through characters who enter the picture, leave, and reappear, and through certain interlaced themes—self-acceptance, race, men, work, separation, sexuality, motherhood. All the while Angelou lives "beneath," recording the minutest of details in a constantly shifting environment and giving attention to the "mundane, though essential, ordinary moments of life" (O'Neale 34).

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first and most highly praised volume in the series. It begins with the humiliations of childhood and ends with the birth of a child. At its publication, critics, not anticipating a series, readily appreciated the clearly developed narrative form. In 1973, for example, Sidonie Smith discussed the "sense of an ending" in Caged Bird as it relates to Angelou's acceptance of Black womanhood: "With the birth of her child Maya is herself born into a mature engagement with the forces of life" (374). But with the introduction in 1974 of Angelou's second autobiographical volume, Gather Together in My Name, the tight structure appeared to crumble; childhood experiences were replaced by episodes which a number of critics consider disjointed or bizarre. Selwyn Cudjoe, for instance, noted the shift from the "intense solidity and moral center" in Caged Bird to the "conditions of alienation and fragmentation" in Gather Together, conditions which affect its organization and its quality, making it "conspicuously weak" (17, 20). Lynn Z. Bloom found the sequel "less satisfactory" because the narrator "abandons or jeopardizes the maturity, honesty, and intuitive good judgment toward which she had been moving in Caged Bird" (5). Crucial to Bloom's judgment is her concept of movement toward, which insinuates the achievement of an ending.

The narrator, as authentic recorder of the life, indeed changes during the second volume, as does the book's structure; the later volumes abandon the tighter form of Caged Bird for an episodic series of adventures whose so-called "fragments" are reflections of the kind of chaos found in actual living. In altering the narrative structure, Angelou shifts the emphasis from herself as an isolated consciousness to herself as a Black woman participating in diverse experiences among a diverse class of peoples. As the world of experience widens, so does the canvas.

What distinguishes, then, Angelou's autobiographical method from more conventional autobiographical forms is her very denial of closure. The reader of autobiography expects a beginning, a middle, and an end—as occurs in Caged Bird. She or he also expects a central experience, as we indeed are given in the extraordinary rape sequence of Caged Bird. But Angelou, by continuing her narrative, denies the form and its history, creating from each ending a new beginning, relocating the center to some luminous place in a volume yet to be. Stretching the autobiographical canvas, she moves forward: from being a child; to being a mother; to leaving the child; to having the child, in the fifth volume, achieve his independence. Nor would I be so unwise as to call the fifth volume the end. For Maya Angelou, now a grandmother, has already published a moving, first-person account in Woman's Day of the four years of anguish surrounding the maternal kidnapping of her grandson Colin.

Throughout the more episodic volumes, the theme of motherhood remains a unifying element, with Momma Henderson being Angelou's link with the Black folk tradition—as George Kent, Elizabeth Schultz, and other critics have mentioned. Since traditional solidity of development is absent, one must sometimes search through three or four books to trace Vivian Baxter's changing lovers, Maya Angelou's ambivalence towards motherhood, or her son Guy's various reactions to his non-traditional upbringing. Nonetheless, the volumes are intricately related through a number of essential elements: the ambivalent autobiographical voice, the flexibility of structure to echo the life process, the intertextual commentary on character and theme, and the use of certain recurring patterns to establish both continuity and continuation. I have isolated the mother-child pattern as a way of approaching the complexity of Angelou's methods. One could as well select other kinds of interconnected themes: the absent and/or substitute father, the use of food as a psycho-sexual symbol, the dramatic/symbolic use of images of staring or gazing, and other motifs which establish continuity within and among the volumes.

Stephen Butterfield says of Caged Bird: "Continuity is achieved by the contact of mother and child, the sense of life begetting life that happens automatically in spite of all confusion—perhaps also because of it" (213). The consistent yet changing connection for Maya Angelou through the four subsequent narratives is that same contact of mother and child—with herself and her son Guy; with herself and her own mother, Vivian Baxter; with herself and her paternal grandmother; and, finally, with the child-mother in herself.

Moreover, in extending the traditional one-volume form, Angelou has metaphorically mothered another book. The "sense of life begetting life" at the end of Caged Bird can no longer signal the conclusion of the narrative. The autobiographical moment has been reopened and expanded; Guy's birth can now be seen symbolically as the birth of another text. In a 1975 interview with Carol Benson, Angelou uses such a birthing metaphor in describing the writing of Gather Together: "If you have a child, it takes nine months. It took me three-and-a-half years to write Gather Together, so I couldn't just drop it" (19). This statement makes emphatic what in the autobiographies are much more elusive comparisons between creative work and motherhood; after a three-anda-half-year pregnancy she gives birth to Gather Together, indicating that she must have planned the conception of the second volume shortly after the 1970 delivery of Caged Bird.

Each of the five volumes explores, both literally and metaphorically, the significance of motherhood. I will examine this theme from two specific perspectives: first, Angelou's relationship to her mother and to mother substitutes, especially to Momma Henderson; second, Angelou's relationship to her son as she struggles to define her own role as mother/artist. Throughout the volumes Angelou moves backwards and forwards, from connection to conflict. This dialectic of Black mother-daughterhood, introduced in the childhood narrative, enlarges and contracts during the series, finding its fullest expression in Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas.

In flux, in defiance of chronological time, the mother-child configuration forms the basic pattern against which other relationships are measured and around which episodes and volumes begin or end. Motherhood also provides the series with a literary unity, as Angelou shifts positions—from mother to granddaughter to child—in a non-ending text that, through its repetitions of maternal motifs, provides an ironic comment on her own sense of identity. For Angelou, despite her insistence on mother love, is trapped in the conflicts between working and mothering, independence and nurturing—conflicts that echo her ambivalence towards her mother, Vivian Baxter, and her apparent sanctification of Grandmother Henderson, the major adult figure in Caged Bird.

Annie Henderson is a solid, God-fearing, economically independent woman whose general store in Stamps, Arkansas, is the "lay center of activities in town" (Caged Bird 5), much as Annie is the moral center of the family. According to Mildred A. Hill-Lubin, the grandmother, both in Africa and in America, "has been a significant force in the stability and the continuity of the Black family and the community" (257). Hill-Lubin selects Annie Henderson as her primary example of the strong grandmother in African-American literature—the traditional preserver of the family, the source of folk wisdom, and the instiller of values within the Black community. Throughout Caged Bird Maya has ambivalent feelings for this awesome woman, whose values of self-determination and personal dignity gradually chip away at Maya's dreadful sense of being "shit color" (17). As a self-made woman, Annie Henderson has the economic power to lend money to whites; as a practical Black woman, however, she is convinced that whites cannot be directly confronted: "If she had been asked and had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly or not, she would have said that she was a realist" (39). To survive in a racist society, Momma Henderson has had to develop a realistic strategy of submission that Maya finds unacceptable. Maya, in her need to re-image her grandmother, creates a metaphor that places Momma's power above any apparent submissiveness: Momma "did an excellent job of sagging from her waist down, but from the waist up she seemed to be pulling for the top of the oak tree across the road" (24).

There are numerous episodes, both in Caged Bird and Gather Together, which involve the conflict between Maya and her grandmother over how to deal with racism. When taunted by three "powhitetrash" girls, Momma quietly sings a hymn; Maya, enraged, would like to have a rifle (Caged Bird 23-27). Or, when humiliated by a white dentist who'd rather put his "hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's" (160), Annie is passive; Maya subsequently invents a fantasy in which Momma runs the dentist out of town. In the italicized dream text (161-62), Maya endows her grandmother with superhuman powers; Momma magically changes the dentist's nurse into a bag of chicken seed. In reality the grandmother has been defeated and humiliated, her only reward a mere ten dollars in interest for a loan she had made to the dentist (164). In Maya's fantasy Momma's "eyes were blazing like live coals and her arms had doubled themselves in length "; in actuality she "looked tired" (162).

This richly textured passage is rendered from the perspective of an imaginative child who recreates her grandmother—but in a language that ironically transforms Annie Henderson from a Southern Black storekeeper into an eloquent heroine from a romantic novel: "Her tongue had thinned and the words rolled off well enunciated." Instead of the silent "nigra" (159) of the actual experience, Momma Henderson is now the articulate defender of her granddaughter against the stuttering dentist. Momma Henderson orders the "contemptuous scoundrel" to leave Stamps "now and herewith." The narrator eventually lets Momma speak normally, then comments: "(She could afford to slip into the vernacular because she had such eloquent command of English.)"

This fantasy is the narrator's way of dealing with her ambivalence towards Momma Henderson—a woman who throughout Caged Bird represents to Maya both strength and weakness, both generosity and punishment, both affection and the denial of affection. Here her defender is "ten feet tall with eight-foot arms," quite capable, to recall the former tree image, of reaching the top of an oak from across the road. Momma's physical transformation in the dream text also recalls an earlier description: "I saw only her power and strength. She was taller than any woman in my personal world, and her hands were so large they could span my head from ear to ear" (38). In the dentist fantasy, Maya eliminates all of Momma Henderson's "negative" traits—submissiveness, severity, religiosity, sternness, down-home speech. It would seem that Maya is so shattered by her grandmother's reaction to Dentist Lincoln, so destroyed by her illusions of Annie Henderson's power in relationship to white people, that she compensates by reversing the true situation and having the salivating dentist be the target of Momma's wrath. Significantly, this transformation occurs immediately before Momma Henderson tells Maya and Bailey that they are going to California. Its position in the text gives it the impression of finality. Any negative attitudes become submerged, only to surface later, in Gather Together, as aspects of Angelou's own ambiguity towards race, power, and identity.

In Caged Bird Momma Henderson had hit Maya with a switch for unknowingly taking the Lord's name in vain, "like whitefolks do" (87). Similarly, in Gather Together Annie slaps her granddaughter after Maya, on a visit to Stamps, verbally assaults two white saleswomen. In a clash with Momma Henderson that is both painful and final, Maya argues for "the principle of the thing," and Momma slaps her.2 Surely, Momma's slap is well intended; she wishes to protect Maya from "lunatic cracker boys" and men in white sheets, from all of the insanity of racial prejudice (78-79). The "new" Maya, who has been to the city and found a sense of independence, is caught in the clash between her recently acquired "principles" and Momma's fixed ideology. Thus the slap—but also the intention behind it—will remain in Maya's memory long after the mature Angelou has been separated from Annie Henderson's supervision. Momma makes Maya and the baby leave Stamps, again as a precaution: "Momma's intent to protect me had caused her to hit me in the face, a thing she had never done, and to send me away to where she thought I'd be safe" (79). Maya departs on the train, never to see her grandmother again.

In the third volume Angelou, her marriage falling apart, is recuperating from a difficult appendectomy. When she tells her husband Tosh that she wants to go to Stamps until she is well, he breaks the news that Annie Henderson died the day after Angelou's operation. In recording her reaction to her grandmother's death, Angelou's style shifts from its generally more conversational tone and becomes intense, religious, emotional:

Ah, Momma. I had never looked at death before, peered into its yawning chasm for the face of the beloved. For days my mind staggered out of balance. I reeled on a precipice of knowledge that even if I were rich enough to travel all over the world, I would never find Momma. If I were as good as God's angels and as pure as the Mother of Christ, I could never have Momma's rough slow hands pat my cheek or braid my hair.

Death to the young is more than that undiscovered country; despite its inevitability, it is a place having reality only in song or in other people's grief.

(Singin' and Swingin' 41)

This moving farewell, so atypical of Angelou's more worldly autobiographical style, emerges directly from a suppressed religious experience which Angelou narrates earlier in the same text—a "secret crawl through neighborhood churches" (28). These visits, done without her white husband's knowledge, culminate in Angelou's being saved at the Evening Star Baptist Church. During her purification, Angelou cries for her family: "For my fatherless son, who was growing up with a man who would never, could never, understand his need for manhood; for my mother, whom I admired but didn't understand; for my brother, whose disappointment with life was drawing him relentlessly into the clutches of death; and, finally, I cried for myself, long and loudly" (33). Annie Henderson is strangely absent from this list of family for whom Angelou cries during the short-lived conversion. But only a few pages later, Angelou remembers her grandmother's profound importance, in the elegiac passage on Momma's death.

In this passage Angelou creates a funeral song which relies on the Black gospel tradition, on the language of Bible stories, and on certain formative literary texts.3 Words like chasm, precipice, angels, and beloved have Sunday School overtones, a kind of vocabulary Angelou more typically employs for humorous effects, as in the well-known portrait of Sister Monroe (Caged Bird 32-37).4 The gospel motif, so dominant in the passage, seems directly related to Angelou's rediscovery of the Black spiritual: "The spirituals and gospel songs were sweeter than sugar. I wanted to keep my mouth full of them and the sounds of my people singing fell like sweet oil in my ears" (Singin' and Swingin' 28). During her conversion experience Angelou lies on the floor while four women march round her singing, "Soon one morning when death comes walking in my room" (33); in another spiritual the singers prepare for the "walk to Jerusalem" (31). These and similar hymns about death had been significant elements of the "folk religious tradition" of Momma Henderson (Kent 76). Now, for a brief time, they become part of the mature Angelou's experience. That their revival is almost immediately followed by the death of Momma Henderson accounts, to a large extent, for Angelou's intensely religious narrative.

Angelou's singing of the Black grandmother in this passage contains other refrains from the past, most notably her desire to have "Momma's rough slow hands pat my cheek." These are the same hands that slapped Maya for having talked back to the white saleswomen—an event that was physically to separate grandmother and granddaughter (Gather Together 86-88). That final slap, softened here, becomes a loving pat on the cheek akin to a moment in Caged Bird in which Maya describes her grandmother's love as a touch of the hand: "Just the gentle pressure of her rough hand conveyed her own concern and assurance to me" (96). Angelou's tone throughout the elegy is an attempt, through religion, to reconcile her ambivalence towards Momma Henderson by sharing her traditions. Angelou wishes to be "as good as God's angels" and as "pure as the Mother of Christ," metaphors which seem to represent Angelou's effort to close off the chasm between herself and Momma Henderson through the use of a common language, the language of the church-going grandmother.

As Momma Henderson, the revered grandmother, recedes from the narrative, Angelou's natural mother gains prominence. By the third volume Maya Angelou and Vivian Baxter have established a closeness that somewhat compensates for Maya's having been sent off to Stamps as a child, a situation so painful that Maya had imagined her mother dead:

I could cry anytime I...

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

(Feminism in Literature)


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


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The Heart of a Woman

(Feminism in Literature)


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],...

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Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


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...

(The entire section is 641 words.)