Maya Angelou Angelou, Maya (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maya Angelou 1928–

(Pseudonym of Marguerita Johnson) American autobiographical novelist, poet, dramatist, composer, actress, and dancer. Angelou's life has become a source of great interest since the publication of her first autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her story is noteworthy for its candid descriptions of the adjustments and struggles of Angelou's early life. Despite the pain involved in writing about her past, she feels her story is beneficial to young people, whom she warns, "You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated." Angelou has done editorial work on the Arab Observer of Cairo and administrative work for the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. She speaks six languages and has taught and lectured at several universities. In 1976, she was named Woman of the Year in Communications by Ladies' Home Journal. She has also been nominated for various awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. A member of a number of prominent associations, such as the Directors Guild of America, she has also served on the advisory board of the Women's Prison Association, and on the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year and the American Revolution Bicentennial Council. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Ernece B. Kelly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] is a poetic counterpart for the more scholarly [Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South by Charles S. Johnson]. For it is an autobiographical novel about a "too big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil" … scratching out the early outlines of self in a small Arkansas town.

Miss Angelou confidently reaches back in memory to pull out the painful childhood times: when children fail to break the adult code, disastrously breaching faith and laws they know nothing of; when the very young swing easy from hysterical laughter to awful loneliness; from a hunger for heroes to the voluntary Pleasure-Pain game of wondering who their real parents are and how long before they take them to their authentic home.

Introducing herself as Marguerite, a "tender-hearted" child, the author allows her story to range in an extraordinary fashion along the field of human emotion. With a child's fatalism, a deep cut ushers in visions of an ignoble death. With a child's addiction to romance and melodrama, she imagines ending her life in the dirt-yard of a Mexican family—among strangers! It is as if Miss Angelou has a Time Machine, so unerringly does she record the private world of the young where sin is the Original Sin and embarrassment, penultimate.

While she expertly reminds us of the pain of children trapped by time in the unsympathetic world of adults, she stretches out to the human environment too. Although the elements that go to make up the Black southern and rural experience—customs, values, superstitions—most interest Miss Angelou, she carries us "across the tracks" occasionally to the white...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Sidonie Ann Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maya Angelou's autobiography, like [Richard] Wright's, opens with a primal childhood scene that brings into focus the nature of the imprisoning environment from which the self will seek escape. The black girl child is trapped within the cage of her own diminished self-image around which interlock the bars of natural and social forces. The oppression of natural forces, of physical appearance and processes, foists a self-consciousness on all young girls who must grow from children into women. Hair is too thin or stringy or mousy or nappy. Legs are too fat, too thin, too bony, the knees too bowed. Hips are too wide or not wide enough. Breasts grow too fast or not at all. The self-critical process is incessant, a driving demon. But in the black girl child's experience these natural bars are reinforced with the rusted iron social bars of racial subordination and impotence. Being born black is itself a liability in a world ruled by white standards of beauty which imprison the child a priori in a cage of ugliness: "What you looking at me for?" This really isn't me. I'm white with long blond hair and blue eyes, with pretty pink skin and straight hair, with a delicate mouth. I'm my own mistake. I haven't dreamed myself hard enough. I'll try again. The black and blue bruises of the soul multiply and compound as the caged bird flings herself against these bars…. If the black man is denied his potency and his masculinity, if his autobiography narrates the quest of the black male after a "place" of full manhood, the black woman is denied her beauty and her quest is one after self-accepted black womanhood. Thus the discovered pattern of significant moments Maya Angelou superimposes on the experience of her life is a pattern of moments that trace the quest of the black female after a "place," a place where a child no longer need ask self-consciously, "What you looking at me for?" but where a woman can declare confidently, "I am a beautiful, Black woman." (pp. 367-68)

[This] autobiography of Black America is haunted by [Maya and her brother Bailey], children beginning life or early finding themselves without parents, sometimes with no one but themselves. They travel through life desperately in search of a home, some place where they can escape the shadow of loneliness, of solitude, of outsider-ness. Although Maya and Bailey are travelling toward the home of their grandmother, more important, they are travelling away from the "home" of their parents. Such rejection a child internalizes and translates as a rejection of self: ultimately the loss of home occasions the loss of self-worth. "I'm being sent away because I'm not lovable." The quest for a home therefore is the quest for acceptance, for love, and for the resultant feeling of self-worth. Because Maya Angelou became conscious of her displacement early in life, she began her quest earlier than most of us. Like that of any orphan, that quest is intensely lonely, intensely solitary, making it all the more desperate, immediate, demanding, and making it, above all, an even more estranging process. For the "place" always recedes into the distance, moving with the horizon, and the searcher goes through life merely "passing through" to some place beyond, always beyond….

The aura of personal displacement is counterpointed by the ambience of displacement within the larger black community. The black community of Stamps [, Arkansas, where the two children are sent by their estranged parents] is itself caged in the social reality of racial subordination and impotence. The cotton pickers must face an empty bag every morning, an empty will every night, knowing all along that the season would end as it had begun—money-less, creditless. (p. 369)

Nevertheless, there is a containedness in this environment called Stamps, a containedness which controls the girl child's sense of displacement, the containedness of a safe way of life, a hard way of life, but a known way of life. The child doesn't want to fit here, but it shapes her to it. And although she is lonely, although she suffers from her feelings of ugliness and abandonment, the strength of Momma's arms contains some of that loneliness.

Suddenly Stamps is left behind. Moving on, the promise of a place. Her mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents—St. Louis, a big city, an even bigger reality, a totally new...

(The entire section is 1785 words.)

Annie Gottlieb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maya Angelou writes like a song, and like the truth. The wisdom, rue and humor of her storytelling are borne on a lilting rhythm completely her own, the product of a born writer's senses nourished on black church singing and preaching, soft mother talk and salty street talk, and on literature: James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Shakespeare and Gorki. Her honesty is also very much her own, even when she faces bitter facts or her own youthful foolishness. In this second installment of her autobiography, as in her much praised first book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou accomplishes the rare feat of laying her own life open to a reader's scrutiny without the reflex-covering gesture of melodrama or shame. And as she reveals herself so does she reveal the black community, with a quiet pride, a painful candor and a clean anger.

"Gather Together in My Name" is a little shorter and thinner than its predecessor: telling of an episodic, searching and wandering period in Maya Angelou's life, it lacks the density of childhood. In full compensation, her style has both ripened and simplified. It is more telegraphic and more condensed, transmitting a world of sensation or emotion or understanding in one image—in short, it is more like poetry….

"The South I returned to … was flesh-real and swollenbelly poor." "I clenched my reason and forced their faces into focus." Even in these short bits...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Lynn Sukenick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maya Angelou's rendering of three years of her innocent, awkward, and admirably nervy late adolescence in ["Gather Together in My Name"], the second volume of her autobiography, resembles the performance of a professional dancer trying to imitate someone who can't dance. The grace and competence show through and it's hard to believe in the high incidence of failure she describes in her youth. Thus we are entertained but kept safe from the roughness and painful uncertainty of real ineptitudes.

Angelou's prose is sculpted, concise, rich with flavor and surprise, exuding a natural confidence and command. The fault—since I have found one—lies more in the tone of the book. It is healthy, warm, and...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gather Together in My Name] is the second volume in the story of [Maya Angelou's] life, a series that she intended to continue "every three years until she is recognized as the contemporary Black Proust." It may be that she will fall short of that avowed ambition but, if one recalls her first successful book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings …, and reads this second one, it is apparent that Angelou is keen, sharp, earthy, imaginative, lyrical, spiritually bold, and seems destined for distinction.

The book concerns her travails in California between the ages of 17 and 19 at the end of World War II…. Rita [the name Maya calls herself in this book] scrapes, in these two frantic years, from the bottom to the level at the end of the book when, like Voltaire's Candide, she asserts: "I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I'd never lose it again."

Angelou has kept that promise…. A truly remarkable person, she is able to re-create events of her own life and make them seem part of the reader's imaginative experience. (p. 32)

Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 6 & 13, 1974.

Frank Lamont Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Maya Angelou begins Gather Together In My Name] with a brief history of Black American thought and culture after the second World War; it is not a precise history, certainly not history as viewed coolly and through statistics. It is not even "accurate," but viewed from the vantage of almost 30 years, as one might hear it on the streets: biased, authoritative, hip, almost wildly funny, like certain urban myths. It seems right, and if this is not history as it was, it is history as it should have been.

In many ways, autobiography is the most demanding fiction, and few can, à la Chester Himes' The Quality of Hurt, whip the form into anything more appreciable than the cotton candy...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Mary Silva Cosgrave

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well is an] eloquent collection of poems that sing out like spirituals from the heart of the poet. She writes of love and loneliness, childhood and womanhood, communication, rejection, fairness, and justice; of Africa waking up and America still sleeping. The verses in "Pickin Em Up and Layin Em Down" catch the stomping rhythm of a fickle lover dancing his way to the next town. In "Song for the Old Ones," the Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas used their wits, cunning, and smiles to insure the survival of their race. In "Take Time Out," the contemporary world is urged to pause and reflect: "If you know that youth/is dying on the run/and my daughter trades/dope stories with your...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I can't help feeling that Maya Angelou's career has suffered from the interest her publishers have in mythologizing her. Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well is such a painfully untalented collection of poems that I can't think of any reason, other than the Maya Myth, for it to be in print…. All this is especially depressing because Angelou … is a stunningly talented prose writer, whose marvelous I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has quite properly become a contemporary classic. Why should it be necessary, then, for her to represent herself publicly as the author of such an embarrassing tangle as

I'd touched your features inchly

(The entire section is 347 words.)

June Jordan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The heroine of Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, a] real-life memoir (that frequently borders on the light and fantastical style of comic opera) paces you through the extraordinarily eventful days and nights of her life as a single young woman who is amply gifted and clearly on the bigger-and-better-make scene. (p. 40)

We accompany Angelou from city to city, from triumph to triumph, you might say, until her worries about her son (left with her mother, who is somebody I'd sure like to know more about) catapult her back to the States, her son, and, presumably, more merry adventures, to be disclosed, if not concluded, in the next book-long chapter of her life.


(The entire section is 297 words.)

Alleen Pace Nilsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Besides the always present Angelou zest and style, a value of [Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas] is that it covers the period of her life when she made the transition from being a part-time clerk in a record store to being "somebody." The part of the book that fascinated me the most was the recounting of her tour as a featured dancer in "Porgy and Bess" when it played in Italy, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Egypt. Because of the cast of characters, Angelou's keen sense of observation, and her lively writing, this is no ordinary travelogue. For readers who have a harder time getting into poetry than into prose, this book might make an exciting introduction to Angelou's poetry. (pp. 87-8)...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

Janet Boyarin Blundell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Angelou's [And Still I Rise] enlarges on themes from her autobiographical writings and earlier poetry, although the quality of individual poems varies…. The poems that work have language close to speech or more nearly to song, while the others get mired in hackneyed metaphor and forced rhyme. Despite its unevenness, the book succeeds as a statement of one black woman's experience, and of her determination not only to survive but to grow. (p. 1640)

Janet Boyarin Blundell, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, September 1, 1978; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), September 1, 1978....

(The entire section is 273 words.)