Maya Angelou

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 various settings her story moves through. She describes a rural vignette which is "sweet-milk fresh in her memory."… Her metaphors are strong and right; her similes less often so. But these lapses in poetic style are undeniably balanced by the insight she offers into the effects of social conditioning on the life-style and self-concept of a Black child growing up in the rural South of the 1930's.

This is a novel about Blackness, youth, and white American society, usually in conflict. The miracle is that out of the War emerges a whole person capable of believing in her worth and capabilities. On balance, it is a gentle indictment of white American womanhood. It is a timely book. (p. 682)

Ernece B. Kelly, in Harvard Educational Review (copyright © 1970 by President and Fellows of Harvard College), November, 1970.

The natural feeling that made I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings such a special reminiscence gives [the verses of Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie] their claim to poetry. They're mostly short and rhymed, in simple forms or freeform, not sophisticated but sensitive all the same to the aural possibilities of rhythm and diction. Of the two sections, one of lyrics on love as the black woman knows it and the other, longer pieces on angrier universal themes of blackness, the first seems the truer. Poems like "They went Home" and "No Loser, No Weeper," slight as they are, carry the weight of experience. "Times-Square-Shoe-Shine-Composition" (in a "Dozens" cadence) and "The Calling of Names" flash among the serious but less well realized pieces of the second group but nothing in either is a match for Miss Angelou's prose, where her real poetry flows without restraint. (p. 775)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1971 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), July 15, 1971.

Sidonie Ann Smith

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 reality. But even here displacement: St. Louis, with its strange sounds, its packaged food, its modern conveniences, remains, a foreign country to the child who after only a few weeks understands that it is not to be her "home." (p. 370)

Back to Stamps, back to the place of grayness and barrenness, the place where nothing happened to people who, in spite of it all, felt contentment "based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them although a great deal more was due."… Her psychological and emotional devastation find a mirror in Stamps' social devastation. (p. 371)

One gesture, however, foreshadows Maya's eventual inability to "sit quietly" and is very much an expression of her growing acceptance of her own self-worth. For a short time she works in the house of Mrs. Viola Cullinan, but a short time only, for Mrs. Cullinan, with an easiness that comes from long tradition, assaults her ego by calling her Mary rather than Maya. Such an oversight offered so casually is a most devastating sign of the girl's invisibility. In failing to call her by her name, a symbol of identity and individuality, of uniqueness, Mrs. Cullinan fails to respect her humanity. Maya understands this perfectly and rebels by breaking Mrs. Cullinan's most cherished dish. The girl child is assuming the consciousness of rebellion as the stance necessary for preserving her individuality and affirming her self-worth. Such a stance insures displacement in Stamps, Arkansas.

But now there is yet another move. Once again the train, travelling westward to San Francisco in wartime. Here in this big city everything seems out of place…. In Stamps the way of life remained rigid, in San Francisco it ran fluid. Maya had been on the move when she entered Stamps and thus could not settle into its rigid way of life. She chose to remain an outsider, and in so doing, chose not to allow her personality to become rigid. The fluidity of the new environment matched the fluidity of her emotional, physical, and psychological life. She could feel in place in an environment where everyone and everything seemed out-of-place.

Even more significant than the total displacement of San Francisco is Maya's trip to Mexico with her father. The older autobiographer, in giving form to her past experience, discovers that this "moment" was central to her process of growth. Maya accompanies her father to a small Mexican town where he proceeds to get obliviously drunk, leaving her with the responsibility of getting them back to Los Angeles. But she has never before driven a car. For the first time, Maya finds herself totally in control of her fate. Such total control contrasts vividly to her earlier recognition in Stamps that she as a Negro had no control over her fate. Here she is alone with that fate. And although the drive culminates in an accident, she triumphs.

This "moment" is succeeded by a month spent in a wrecked car lot scavenging with others like herself. Together these experiences provide her with a knowledge of self-determination and a confirmation of her self-worth. With the assumption of this affirmative knowledge and power, Maya is ready to challenge the unwritten, restrictive social codes of San Francisco. Mrs. Cullinan's broken dish prefigures the job on the streetcar. Stamps' acquiescence is left far behind in Arkansas as Maya assumes control over her own social destiny and engages in the struggle with life's forces. She has broken out of the rusted bars of her social cage.

But Maya must still break open the bars of her female sexuality: although she now feels power over her social identity, she feels insecurity about her sexual identity. (pp. 372-73)

Only [her] pregnancy provides a climactic reassurance: if she can become pregnant, she certainly cannot be a lesbian (certainly a specious argument in terms of logic but a compelling one in terms of emotions and psychology). The birth of the baby brings Maya something totally her own, but, more important, brings her to a recognition of and acceptance of her full, instinctual womanhood. The child, father to the woman, opens the caged door and allows the fully-developed woman to fly out. Now she feels the control of her sexual identity as well as of her social identity. (pp. 373-74)

Maya Angelou's autobiography comes to a sense of an ending: the black American girl child has succeeded in freeing herself from the natural and social bars imprisoning her in the cage of her own diminished self-image by assuming control of her life and fully accepting her black womanhood. The displaced child has found a "place." With the birth of her child Maya is herself born into a mature engagement with the forces of life. In welcoming that struggle she refuses to live a death of quiet acquiescence….

One final comment: one way of dying to life's struggle is to suppress its inevitable pain by forgetting the past…. Once [Maya Angelou] accepted the challenge of recovering the lost years, she accepted the challenge of the process of self-discovery and reconfirmed her commitment to life's struggle. By the time she, as autobiographer, finished remembering the past and shaping it into a pattern of significant moments, she had imposed some sense of an ending upon it. And in imposing that ending upon it she gave the experience distance and a context and thereby came to understand the past and ultimately to understand herself. (p. 374)

Her genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making. The imagery holds the reality, giving it immediacy. That she chooses to recreate the past in its own sounds suggests to the reader that she accepts the past and recognizes its beauty and its ugliness, its assets and its liabilities, its strength and its weakness. Here we witness a return to and final acceptance of the past in the return to and full acceptance of its language, the language a symbolic construct of a way of life. Ultimately Maya Angelou's style testifies to her reaffirmation of self-acceptance, the self-acceptance she achieves within the pattern of the autobiography. (p. 375)

Sidonie Ann Smith, "The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou's Quest after Self-Acceptance," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1973 by Auburn University), Fall, 1973, pp. 365-75.

Annie Gottlieb

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 snipped out of context, you can sense the palpability, the precision and the rhythm of this writing. The reader is rocked into pleasure, stung into awareness. And the migrant, irresolute quality of the story—a faithful reflection of her late adolescence in the forties—resolves into a revelation. The restless, frustrated trying-on of roles turns out to have been an instinctive self-education, and the book ends with Maya Angelou finally gaining her adulthood by regaining her innocence. (p. 16)

In "Gather Together in My Name," the ridiculous and touching posturing of a young girl in the throes of growing up are superimposed on the serious business of survival and responsibility for a child. Maya Angelou's insistence on taking full responsibility for her own life, her frank and humorous examination of her self, will challenge many a reader to be as honest under easier circumstances. Reading her book, you may learn, too, the embrace and ritual, the dignity and solace and humor of the black community. You will meet strong, distinctive people, drawn with deftness and compassion; their blackness is not used to hide their familiar but vulnerable humanity any more than their accessible humanity can for a moment be used to obscure their blackness—or their oppression. Maya Angelou's second book about her life as a young black woman in America is engrossing and vital, rich and funny and wise. (p. 20)

Annie Gottlieb, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 16, 1974.

Lynn Sukenick

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 tough, winning our affection partly through its refusal to gloss over stupidities, mistakes, and cruelties. Yet this refusal to let her earlier self get off easy, and the self-mockery which is her means to honesty, finally becomes in itself a glossing over; although her laughter at herself is witty, intelligent, and a good preventative against maudlin confession (she shrugs off deprivations of family feeling that would make our ordinary psychoanalyzed citizen curl up in self-pity), it eventually becomes a tic and a substitute for a deeper look.

The book is a comedy of self-deception. I don't mean to say that it should be something sober and earnest—indeed, Angelou's style and flair come from her ability to move rather than brood. Yet a revelation of youthful foolishness usually implies that something will take its place, build slowly to edge it out, and the book does not build; it is a chain of anecdotes, and Maya's innocence must re-establish itself at the start of each in order to her mistakes to function as the punch lines they tend to be. Comedy is liberating precisely because there is in it an absence of long-range consequences, and it is not consequences but transitions that I miss—whether of motivation, or musing, or adjustments of emotion. Transitions are a graph of how people cope, and wanting to know how people cope is one of our most urgent reasons for reading autobiography. That Angelou is within the space of three years a mother, a Creole cook, a madam, a tap dancer, a prostitute, a chauffeurette, and so on, is amazing, but I'm not content to be amazed, and I'm annoyed when flippancy runs interference; she gets me to like her and I want to know what it is inside her that makes those choices, however little they may have seemed like Choices at the time….

The realest thing about autobiography is the teller, not the tale. Temperament tends to linger and infuse us long after the anecdotes are forgotten. On the strength of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" I will continue to read whatever autobiographical prose Maya Angelou produces, but I hope that next time she will let simmer a little longer and make it a little less Entertaining, however much a publisher, or even her readers, urge her on. (p. 31)

Lynn Sukenick, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), July 11, 1974.

Doris Grumbach

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 of a life that might have been anyone's. Richard Wright succeeded with Black Boy because he approached it as fiction. (p. 52)

Maya Angelou is not the stylist that Himes is, nor a Richard Wright. She manages, however, a whirry poetic flow (intensely more successful than in her book of poems, Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Die) that is sometimes cute, sometimes lax, often apt. The events of her life making interesting if somewhat lurid reading: an unwed mother, she is unlucky in love; she becomes a prostitute, enduring every nadir of fortune, her motherly instincts intact, her ability to adapt to adversity functioning.

Miss Angelou has the right instincts, that mythomania which one who is given to prattling about his life seems always to possess. She applies it cannily, preserving the fiction that one can recall and, from a distance, whole conversations and surrounding trivia—as if she were a reel of recording tape, consuming for later regurgitation a problematic life. Further, she is schooled in situation ethics, licensing them retroactively to cover her having been a prostitute, making it seem almost enviable that she pulled it off so well.

It can also be said that Miss Angelou possesses an ear for folkways; they spawn abundantly in the warm stream of narration, adding enough mother wit and humor to give the events a "rightness." To some extent she is coy, never allowing us a really good, voyeur's glimpse into the conjugal bed that several male characters enjoy with her; rather, she teases. And though the author is never mawkiskly sentimental, she shows herself to have been, like most of us, silly, only more so than many of us will admit. Yet she is proud. She stumbles, falls, but like the phoenix, rises renewed and wholly myth. (p. 61)

Frank Lamont Phillips, in Black World (copyright © July, 1975, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Johnson Publishing Company and Frank Lamont Phillips), July, 1975.

Mary Silva Cosgrave

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 son/we'd better see/what all our/fearing and our/jeering and our/crying and/our lying/brought about." (p. 78)

Mary Silva Cosgrave, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1976 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), February, 1976.

The 36 poems in [Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well] are grouped, arbitrarily it seems, into five parts, the first four of which contain pieces that are all surface. The themes, chiefly lost or wronged love or frustrated desire, and their treatments are akin to country-western music. It is in the treatment that the superficiality is most obvious: Motives not explored, little depth or interpretation of feelings, no sense of time or change, no allusion or any rich ambiguity, little melody. Some are merely cute. Most could be as effectively stated in declarative sentences. A few poems capture some sense of loneliness, but without conveying any insight or universal values. The twelve poems in part five are generally better, containing some developed images, a degree of music, while also finding deeper meanings in man's actions or inactions. (p. 82)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 3 (Summer, 1976).

Sandra M. Gilbert

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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
              heard love and dared the cost.
            The scented spiel reeled me unreal
              and found my senses lost.

And why, instead of encouraging Angelou, didn't some friendly editor Block (as The New Yorker would say) the following Metaphor:

              A day
              drunk with the nectar of
              weaves its way between
              the years
              to find itself at the flophouse
              of night….

To be fair, not all the verse in Oh Pray … is quite as bad as these two examples. A few of the colloquial pieces—Pickin Em Up and Layin Em Down or Come. And Be My Baby—have the slangy, unpretentious vitality of good ballads. The Pusher ("He bad/O he bad"), with its echoes of Brooks's "We real cool", achieves genuine scariness. And John J. might be a portrait in verse of Bailey, the handsome brother Angelou renders so beautifully in I Know Why…. But these are only four or five poems out of the thirty-six in this collection. And most of the others, when they're not awkward or stilted, are simply corny…. Angelou can hardly be accused of self-parody: for one thing, most of the poetry here is too unself-conscious, too thoughtless, to be in any sense parodic. But, for whatever reason, the wings of song certainly don't seem to fit her very well right now. (pp. 296-97)

Sandra M. Gilbert, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1976.

June Jordan

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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.

Well, this is sometimes delightful reading, and sometimes not. The unabashed, positive energies and the happy resourcefulness of this woman compel your respect, and certainly you wish her well as she hurtles from week to week, place to place, trial to victory.

When she tries to prepare her mother for her impending interracial marriage, her mother asks her why she'll marry the man since Angelou evidently does not love him, or doesn't say she does. Angelou replies: "Because he asked me." The starved sorrow of that response strongly suggests that there are dimensions to Angelou's life that she is not ready to share, yet. I wish she would; that would make it real for me. In the meantime, reading this account, you will not be able to guess about the year, or know about anything remotely political and, in that sense, general. Perhaps Angelou wrote her story that way, in vacuo, so that she could righteously declare, to paraphrase Langston Hughes if I may, "Life for me ain't been no big despair." (pp. 40-1)

June Jordan, in Ms. (© 1977 Ms. Magazine Corp.), January, 1977.

Alleen Pace Nilsen

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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)

Alleen Pace Nilsen, in English Journal (copyright © 1977 by the National Council of Teachers of English), September, 1977.

Janet Boyarin Blundell

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

[In And Still I Rise], Maya Angelou proves once again that audacity can pay off. Seemingly unafraid to approach anything, she includes comments on aging, the disappointments of love, anger at the abuse of black people, and the everyday aspects of womanhood. The moving spirit is summed up in the poem "Still I Rise" when she says "Does my sassiness upset you?/Why are you beset with gloom?/'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells/Pumping in my living room…." The music of these lines is continued throughout the book: indeed Angelou's use of the refrain often serves to break up a poem when the tension grows overwhelming…. Angelou's most glaring weakness is a tendency towards obvious and rhetorical statement, as in "Ain't that Bad," which lists items commonly associated with blacks (Stevie Wonder, rice and beans, etc.) in a way that fails to dramatize any point. However, through her use of music and direct, uninhibited statement, she has written a distinctive and energetic volume. (p. 1127)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1978 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), October 1, 1978.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Angelou, Maya (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Angelou, Maya (Poetry Criticism)