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
[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 world in experiences which corroborate the observation Marguerite's uncle makes: "They don't know us. They mostly scared."… (p. 681)
[Marguerite's] view of the truth about interracial encounters in this land is often expressed in phrasing that seems dated in its naturalistic grounding. Speaking of a white receptionist who gives her the run-around about a job, for instance, she says, "I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer."… Such a fatalistic point-of-view would be quickly smothered in the current climate of social/political activism. Activists see the possibility and necessity for change—moderate to revolutionary—in the racial roles this society assigns us. Interestingly, the author moves out from under her fatalism by the end of the novel when she successfully demands a job as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a position traditionally denied women who are Black.
Miss Angelou accommodates her literary style to...
(The entire section is 5,764 words.)