Maya Angelou Analysis

The Poetry of Maya Angelou

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 429 words.)


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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 Woman of the Year in Communications and one of the one hundred most influential women by Ladies’ Home Journal (1976), Distinguished Woman of North Carolina (1992), and Woman of the Year by Essence magazine (1992). She also received a Yale University fellowship (1970) and a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship in Italy (1975).

A high school graduate, Angelou has received honorary degrees from Smith College (1975), Mills College (1975), Lawrence University (1976), and Wake Forest University (1977). She was appointed Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1981. She read the poem she had composed in honor of the inauguration of President Bill Clinton at the inaugural ceremonies in January, 1993; only one poet before her, Robert Frost, had been invited to read at an inauguration ceremony. In all, she has received more than thirty honorary degrees.

Although many titles have been assigned to Angelou, one is especially significant to her: the modern female African American Marcel Proust. Angelou is known for addressing the world through the medium of her own life. The first volume of her autobiography made her the first African American woman to appear on nonfiction best-seller lists; four volumes followed the first.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970, and Maya Angelou’s first volume of poetry (Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Angelou was also nominated for Tony Awards for her performances in Look Away in 1973 and Roots in 1977, and she won a Grammy Award for best spoken word or nontraditional album for “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem she read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. She holds more than two dozen honorary doctorates, among numerous other awards.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Maya Angelou is known primarily as a poet and autobiographer. She has produced half a dozen volumes of poetry, and The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou was published in 1994. She has also written five volumes of autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1970. In addition, she has written plays, screenplays, and children’s stories.

In addition to being a poet, Maya Angelou (AN-juh-lew) is an essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and the author of children’s books and other pieces of short fiction. Along with two volumes of her autobiography, her collection of essays Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) was on The New York Times best-seller list for ten consecutive weeks. Her two-act drama The Least of These was produced in Los Angeles in 1966. With her screenplay Georgia, Georgia she became, in 1972, the first African American woman to have an original screenplay produced. In 1974 she adapted Sophocles’ Aias (early 440’s b.c.e.Ajax, 1729) for the modern stage. Her children’s book My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me was published in 1994. Her works have been translated into at least ten languages.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Is there a shift in tone between Maya Angelou’s early and late works? If so, what is it, and why do you think the change occurred?

Strong women are portrayed in Angelou’s works. Are there strong men too? If so, who are they? Are their strengths different from those of the women? If so, how?

Trace the theme of transcendence in Angelou’s works. How do her characters “rise above” their circumstances?

Angelou has been criticized, sometimes by African American critics, that her works are simply “uplift” works and not genuine art. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

At least three volumes of Angelou’s autobiographies detail a loss of innocence. What are these major disillusionments? Which is the most complex?

How is the mother figure enshrined in Angelou’s works?

Does Angelou’s faith influence her work? How?

Although Angelou writes almost exclusively about African Americans, her books and poetry are popular with all races. Why?


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. This selection of essays dealing with Angelou’s poetry and prose broaches, among other subjects, the singular relationship of Angelou to her audience and her distinctively African American mode of literary expression.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Discusses how Angelou employs the image of the protecting mother as a primary archetype within her work. Traces Angelou’s development of themes common to black female autobiography: the centrality of the family, the challenges of child rearing and single parenthood, and the burden of overcoming negative stereotypes of African American women.

Cudjoe, Selwyn. “Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1983. Cudjoe discusses the importance of Angelou’s biographical work, arguing that she represents “the condition of Afro-American womanhood in her quest for understanding and love rather than for bitterness and despair.” Cudjoe stresses that by telling the story of her own life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has shown the reader what it means to be a black female in America.

Elliott, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Part of the University Press of Mississippi’s ongoing Literary Conversations series, this work is a collection of more than thirty interviews with Angelou that originally appeared in various magazines and newspapers, accompanied by a chronology of her life. Provides a multifaceted perspective on the creative issues that have informed Angelou’s work as an autobiographer and a poet.

Guntern, Gottlieb, ed. The Challenge of Creative Leadership. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997. Guntern’s criteria for those who inspire others to move beyond mediocrity are explored in these philosophical pieces. Among these criteria are originality, elegance, and profundity.

Hagen, Lynn B. Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. While a number of scholarly works address the different literary forms Angelou has undertaken (most devoted to autobiography), few critical volumes survey her entire opus, and Hagen’s is one of the best. Chapters include “Wit and Wisdom/Mirth and Mischief,” “Abstracts in Ethics,” and “Overview.”

King, Sarah E. Maya Angelou: Greeting the Morning. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1994. Includes biographical references and an index. Examines Angelou’s life, from her childhood in the segregated South to her rise to prominence as a writer.

Koyana, Siphokazi, and Rosemary Gray. “Growing up with Maya Angelou and Sindiwe Magona: A Comparison.” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies 7 (November, 2001).

Lisandrelli, Elaine Slivinski. Maya Angelou: More than a Poet. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1996. Lisandrelli discusses the flamboyance of Angelou, comparing her to the earlier African American author Zora Neale Hurston. Their hard work, optimism, perseverance, and belief in themselves are extolled.

Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. While focusing mainly on the autobiographies, Lupton’s study is still useful as a balanced assessment of Angelou’s writings. The volume also contains an excellent bibliography, particularly of Angelou’s autobiographical works.

McPherson, Dolly A. Order out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: P. Lang, 1990. A book-length study of Angelou.

O’Neale, Sondra. “Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou’s Continuing Autobiography.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1983. O’Neale argues that Angelou’s primary contribution to the canon of African American literature lies in her realistic portrayal of the lives of black people, especially black women. O’Neale goes on to demonstrate the ways in which Angelou successfully destroys many of the stereotypes of black women.

Pettit, Jayne. Maya Angelou: Journey of the Heart. New York: Lodestar Books, 1996. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Traces Angelou’s journey from childhood through her life as entertainer, activist, writer, and university professor.

Shapiro, Miles. Maya Angelou. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. A biography describing the life and work of the celebrated writer.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. In this collection of interviews, Tate explores the personal lives and works of such contemporary African American writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. In her interview, Angelou discusses the importance of black role models.

Williams, Mary E., ed. Readings on Maya Angelou. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1997. This collection of essays by literary scholars and noted faculty offers diverse voices and approaches to Angelou’s literary canon.