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date: 14 June 2024

Angelou, Mayafree

Angelou, Mayafree

  • Stefanie K. Dunning


  • North American Literatures

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. Because her brother Bailey could not say her whole name as a child, Marguerite became Maya. Angelou's life is synonymous with her work; she has published a series of five autobiographies, her most famous being I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). In each of these five works, Angelou writes about particular and important parts of her life. Yet not only does each book elucidate periods in Angelou's own life, but these books also paint a picture of the time she is writing about within the black community. Angelou's work demonstrates that the personal is political and that the events that shape and inform an individual life are often related to large political movements and events that affect an entire community.

Long before the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou had been a poet, a dancer, a singer, and an actor. After a party one evening where Angelou had regaled her guests with humorous stories of her childhood, she was approached by a publisher and asked to write an autobiography. At first Angelou refused, but she eventually accepted the offer and wrote her now-famous autobiographical account of her childhood. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou details her childhood, which she and her brother Bailey spent being shuttled from her paternal grandparents, her mother and her father.

In this her first work, Angelou's writing is resplendent and taut; it is perhaps Angelou's most lyrically successful autobiographical account. Angelou draws a quaint portrait of her life in Stamps, Arkansas, with her paternal grandmother and her partially disabled uncle. In Stamps, Maya and Bailey's lives are steady, healthy, and regulated by school, the commerce of her grandmother's thriving store, and their church schedule. In Stamps, young Maya is protected from the brutalities of her mother and father's worlds, which she would come to know too soon. After a few years in Stamps, their mother reclaims Maya and Bailey and they move to St. Louis to live with her. There, Maya is molested by one of her mother's boyfriends and suffers not only bodily trauma but also psychological trauma as she attempts to grapple with what has happened to her. This experience will make the young Maya feel “tainted” as she proceeds through the difficulties of adolescence. She is eventually returned to her grandmother, only to move once again in her life to California, where she lives with both her mother and her father alternately. Angelou's narrative ends when she becomes pregnant at sixteen and gives birth to a boy, whom she named Guy Johnson.

Angelou's first autobiography received rave reviews, but it has lately come under fire, along with a host of other books that have been considered American classics. Banned along with some works by Mark Twain in several states, among them Georgia and Texas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was thought to be so sexually explicit that it was pornographic; some parents felt Angelou's descriptions of her sexual molestation were too graphic for children to read. Despite this controversy, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains one of the most widely read and best-selling autobiographical accounts in American literature.

Angelou's Life as Her Work

In 1971, Angelou published a book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie. Like her autobiography, her poetry in this volume deals with the difficult themes of sexuality, race, and gender. Her poem The Mothering Blackness, in the section entitled “Where Love is a Scream of Anguish,” perfectly illustrates this conjunction of issues in Angelou's poetry. “She came home running / back to the mothering blackness / deep in the smothering blackness / white tears icicle gold plains of her face / she came home running.” This poem also reminds us of Angelou's own homeward journey from St. Louis after her horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend. Angelou's poetry has yet to receive the critical praise some of her autobiographical work has garnered. Despite the lack of critical acclaim or interest in Angelou's poetry, her volumes continue to sell well with popular readers.

Angelou followed this volume of poetry with another autobiographical work, Gather Together in My Name (1974). In this book, Angelou writes about her and her brother's relationship with their grandmother and the widening rift between them. She also chronicles her experience in a variety of professions—most notable is her work as a prostitute and madam. At the end of Gather Together in My Name, Angelou realizes she was “tricked” into prostituting herself by a lover. The novel ends as a repentant Angelou beseeches her readers to forgive her for the insights, some of which are tawdry, she reveals in this book. Yet Angelou's colorful past exposes far more than simply the salacious nature of some of her jobs; her frank portrayal of her life demonstrates her showmanship, highlighting that Angelou is a consummate performer and she brings to her work the kind of difficult honesty that makes art meaningful, worthwhile, and beautiful.

The forthright nature of Angelou's work and art has meant that she was never without work; during the period between the publication of her autobiographies, Angelou toured with the State Department's production of Porgy and Bess on a twenty-two-nation tour, wrote songs for Hollywood movies, and perhaps most notably, wrote the script for the film Georgia, Georgia and became the first black woman to write a Hollywood film.

Between the publication of her second and third book of autobiography, Angelou published a book of poetry titled Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975). In Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, Angelou continues to confront issues of race and racism. This volume, however, reflects her experiences abroad and in Africa, as the poem simply titled Africa demonstrates. Of Africa, she notes, “Now she is rising / remember her pain / remember the losses / her screams loud and in vain / remember her riches / her history slain / now she is striding / although she had lain.” This volume of poetry reflects a more mature Angelou, who is contemplating aging as well as celebrating those who have died, as evidenced in titles from the volume such as Turning Forty and Elegy.

Angelou's next autobiographical publication is the enigmatic Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976). In this work, Angelou chronicles her failed marriage to a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. The two were married for five years but eventually separated; Angelou devotes the second half of the book to describing her experiences as a dancer in the State Department's world tour of Porgy and Bess. While touring with Porgy and Bess, Angelou had to leave her son, Guy Johnson, behind, and this guilt at not being with her son was almost more than she could bear. Battling severe depression and at times considering suicide, Angelou spent a year bouncing between astounding emotional highs and lows. After one year the tour ended, and she moved to a houseboat in Sausalito and lived in a commune with her son.

The Impact of Maya Angelou's Work

Angelou then published the book of poetry And Still I Rise (1978). This volume of poetry produced Angelou's best-known poem among African-American women, Phenomenal Woman. Reproduced on T-shirts, posters, and greeting cards, Angelou's poem celebrated African-American beauty, and though published in 1978, fifteen years later a new generation of racially conscious readers would rediscover this poem as an enduring ode to the beauty and strength of African-American women. Her mainstream popularity among a younger generation of African Americans undoubtedly is linked in part to the success of her poem On the Pulse of Morning, which she delivered at the inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton in 1992. Her poem, which rhymes and seems to move with a beat akin to rap music, begins “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. / I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size.” Angelou goes on to write, “It's in the reach of my arms, / The span of my hips, / The stride in my step, / The curl of my lips. / I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That's me.” Though Angelou never explicitly posits two economies of racial beauty (white versus black) in this poem, it has been interpreted and claimed as a validation of the physical features of black women that have long been labeled as unacceptable by mainstream American society. This poem represented a rallying cry for African-American women everywhere to embrace themselves as they were, rather than subscribe to white standards of beauty.

Angelou's fourth and fifth autobiographies, The Heart of a Woman (1981) and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), continued to explore the themes of race and racism in her work as well as questions of gender and sexuality. In The Heart of A Woman, Angelou recaptures some of her former linguistic acuity as she finds herself committed to the cause of civil rights. Quite notably, Angelou served as the Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The book has been hailed as an important contribution to African-American history, as it covers the pivotal civil rights moment. Her fifth autobiography, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, explores the four years Angelou spent in Africa and the devastating car accident that endangered the life of her son. In Africa, Angelou becomes deeply depressed as she waits for Guy to recover from a broken neck; yet she also finds herself in Africa and reconnects her African-American self to the home of her ancestors. Angelou falls in love with Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana and portrays an extremely important moment in African history—the opening years of Africa's first postcolonial republic.

Though all of Angelou's work (as well as her many professions, which include teaching, journalism and performing) is too numerous to name here, it is worth noting that she also published a volume of poetry in 1983 titled Shaker, Why Don't You Sing! Another autobiographical novel, A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), deviates from her previous autobiographies in that she takes a longer look over her entire life rather than focusing on one specific period. Angelou recounts her return from Africa, her depression over the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and her growing disappointment with the emotional distance growing between her and her son, Guy. She also provides vivid accounts of her friendship with James Baldwin.

Despite Angelou's previous success, African-American poet Wanda Coleman reviewed A Song Flung Up to Heaven negatively. Of Angelou's latest work, she wrote in the 14 April 2002 issue of the Los Angeles Times that the book was full of “empty phrases and sweeping generalities…dead metaphors (‘sobbing embrace,’ ‘my heart fell in my chest’) and clumsy similes (‘like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting times’).” Coleman's criticism of Angelou sparked an enormous controversy in the African-American literary community; Coleman was subsequently uninvited by Eso Won Books, the premiere African-American bookstore in southern California, to a book signing. Coleman, however, was not alone in her criticism of the book; the reviews for the book were generally mixed, with quite a few strongly negative reviews of it.

Though Coleman's negative review of Angelou's latest autobiography generated a great deal of press (Coleman was even featured in the Village Voice after the fallout from her review), Angelou's work has often received mixed reviews. Critics have long discounted her poetry as simplistic. It is, perhaps, for this reason that her poetry is less known than her other works. And of all her works, Angelou is still most critically lauded for her autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Despite some critical disapproval, Angelou's work continues to inspire and sustain readers all over the world. Maya Angelou is currently serving as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Selected Works

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970)
  • Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie: The Poetry of Maya Angelou (1971)
  • Gather Together in My Name (1974)
  • Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975)
  • Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976)
  • And Still I Rise (1978)
  • The Heart of a Woman (1981)
  • Shaker, Why Don't You Sing! (1983)
  • All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
  • I Shall Not Be Moved (1990)
  • Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
  • Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women (1994)
  • Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997)
  • A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Philadelphia, Pa., 1998. A thorough and authoritative collection of important essays about Angelou by leading literary critics.
  • Courtney-clarke, Margaret. Maya Angelou: The Poetry of Living. New York, 1999. An interesting book of photographs and quotations about Angelou.
  • Elliot, Jeffrey M., ed. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson, Miss., 1989. A great set of interviews with Angelou from the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Lupton, Mary. Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity. Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 2 (Summer 1990): 257–275. An interesting discussion of Angelou and the tradition of autobiography.
  • McPherson, Dolly. Order out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York, 1990. A critical review of Angelou's autobiographies through 1986.