The Poetry of Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s poetry complements the search for self-identity as an African American woman described in her series of autobiographical narratives beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The caged bird image, which she borrows from a poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, recurs in her work and expresses the collective yearning of African Americans for freedom as well as Angelou’s search for individuality and independence.
In her poetry Angelou often focuses on the oppression of African Americans, including some that the media love to demonize: welfare mothers, prostitutes, and drug pushers. She describes the female African American experience with particular power in “Our Grandmothers,” which begins with a slave mother dreading the approaching sale of her children. Angelou also proudly celebrates the accomplishments of African Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, merges with the Southern slave experience of her African American ancestors in poems about Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia, and the Southern slave plantation. Frequently, Angelou uses the vocabulary and slang of African American English. She also broadens her focus and speaks of urban African Americans and comfortable working white liberals.
Some of these themes are found in “On the Pulse of Morning,” written for the inauguration of Bill Clinton as president of the United States in 1993. Using geographic references to Arkansas, to the Mississippi and Potomac rivers, and to the many peoples of the United States, Angelou affirms the diversity and brotherhood of humanity and a dawn of equality in American history.
Another important theme for Angelou is Africa. Angelou lived in Ghana for the four years described in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. For Angelou, Africa’s pyramids and history are a source of pride; its black inhabitants are a criterion of beauty.
Finally, in her poems Angelou reflects on love and her own erotic feelings. Her search for physical and emotional satisfaction in her relationships is sometimes satisfying and sometimes frustrating. Always, however, the poet Angelou defines herself as a woman and an African American.
Coulthard, R. “Poetry as Politics: Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem, ’On the Pulse of Morning.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 28, no. 1 (January, 1999): 2-5.
Kallen, Stuart A. Maya Angelou: Woman of Words, Deeds, and Dreams. Edina, Minn.: Abdo and Daughters, 1993.
King, Sarah E. Maya Angelou: Greeting the Morning. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook, 1994.
Lisandrelli, Elaine Slivinski. Maya Angelou: More Than a Poet. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1996.
Pettit, Jayne. Maya Angelou: Journey of the Heart. New York: Lodestar Books, 1996.
Shapiro, Miles. Maya Angelou. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
Maya Angelou’s work has garnered many prestigious awards. For her writing of the revue Cabaret for Freedom, which she and Godfrey Cambridge produced, directed, and performed in 1960 for the purpose of raising money for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), she was named northern coordinator for the SCLC in 1959. She later worked with civil rights leader Malcolm X. Other honors include a nomination for a National Book Award (1970) for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), a Pulitzer Prize nomination (1972) for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie , Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award nominations (1973 and 1977), a Golden Eagle Award for documentary (1977), a Matrix Award from Women in Communications (1983), the North Carolina Award in Literature (1987), the Langston Hughes Award (1991), the Horatio Alger Award (1992), the Spingarn Medal (1993), a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non-Traditional Album (1994), the National Medal of Arts (2000), and the prestigious Order of Kilimanjaro Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (2001). She was named...
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