Maya Angelou born Marguerite Ann Johnson; April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet who has been called “America’s most visible black female autobiographer” by scholar Joanne M. Braxton. She is best known for her series of six autobiographical volumes, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her first seventeen years. It brought her international recognition, and was nominated for a National Book Award. She has been awarded over 30 honorary degrees and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie.. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the highest civilian honour in the U.S.
Angelou was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since 1991, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. In 1995, she was recognized for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was heralded as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She is highly respected as a spokesperson for Black people and women. Angelou’s work is often characterized as autobiographical fiction. She has, however, made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books, centered on themes such as identity, family, and racism, are often used as set texts in schools and universities internationally. Some of her more controversial work has been challenged or banned in U.S. schools and library.
Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou’s older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite “Maya”, shortened from “my-a-sister”. The details of Angelou’s life described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and “with no time chart in front of her”.
And Angelou’s life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.–Reviewer John McWhorter, The New Republic
Evidence suggests that Angelou is partially descended from the Mende people of West Africa.[note 1] A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou’s maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, who had been emancipated after the Civil War, became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After indicting Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, a grand jury found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in Missouri with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou’s grandmother. Angelou described Lee as “that poor little Black girl, physically and mentally bruised.”
The first 17 years of Angelou’s life are documented in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents’ “calamitous marriage” ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In what editor Claudia Johnson called “an astonishing exception to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou’s grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because “she made wise and honest investments”
Four years later, the children’s father “came to Stamps without warning” and returned them to their mother’s care in St. Louis. At age eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for one day. Four days after his release, he was killed, probably by Angelou’s uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she has stated, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone… According to Angelou’s biographers it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Shortly after Freeman’s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors that would affect her life and career as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.When Angelou was 14, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in Oakland, California. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School while studying dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet. At the end of Angelou’s third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, her son changed his name to “Guy Johnson”.
Angelou’s second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19 and “depicts a single mother’s slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime. Angelou worked as “the front woman/business manager for prostitutes, restaurant cook, and prostitute. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.
Adulthood and early career: 1951—1961Angelou has been married three times or more (something she has never clarified, “for fear of sounding frivolous”). In her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou describes her three-year marriage to Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos in 1951, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother. She took modern dances classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves “Al and Rita”, and performed Modern Dance at fraternal Black organizations throughout San Francisco, but never became successful. She studied African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, and her new husband and son moved with her to New York City, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Angelou’s marriage ended, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the nightclub The Purple Onion, where she sang and danced calypso music. Up to that point she went by the name of “Marguerite Johnson”, or “Rita”, but changed her professional name to, at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion, “Maya Angelou”, a “distinctive name” that set her apart and captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
As Angelou described in her fourth autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, she met novelist James O. Killens in 1959, and at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African American authors, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and was published for the first time. After meeting and hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960, she and Killens organized “the legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was named SCLC’s Northern Coordinator. According to Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and “eminently effective”. Angelou began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.
Africa to Caged Bird: 1961—1969In 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married. Also in 1961, she performed in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson. She and Guy moved to Cairo later that year with Make, where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, he to attend college, where he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965, later relating her experiences as an African American residing in Ghana in her fifth autobiography, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community] She was a feature editor for The African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and worked and performed for Ghana’s National Theatre. She performed in a revival of The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.
Most of Angelu’s time in Africa was spent in Accra, Ghana.In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s.[note 5] As she wrote about in her sixth and final autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), Angelou returned to the U.S. to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and then moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career. She worked as a market researcher in Watts and witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965. She acted in and wrote plays, and returned to New York in 1967. She met her life-long friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she met in Paris in the 1950s and called “my brother”, during this time. Her friend Jerry Purcell provided Angelou with a stipend to support her writing.
In 1968, King asked her to organize a march. She agreed, but “postpones again”, and in what Angelou’s biographers call “a macabre twist of fate”, he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4).[note 6] Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by Baldwin. As her biographers state, “If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius”. Despite almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated “Blacks, Blues, Black!”, a ten-part series of documentaries which dealt with the connection between blues music and Black Americans’ African heritage, as well as what Angelou called the “Africanisms still current in the U.S.” for the National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS. Also in 1968, inspired by a dinner party she attended with her friend James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and Feiffer’s wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Later careerAngelou’s Georgia, Georgia, produced by a Swedish film company and filmed in Sweden, the first screenplay written by a Black woman, was released in 1972. She also wrote the film’s soundtrack, despite having very little additional input in the filming of the movie. Angelou married Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of Germaine Greer, Paul du Feu, in San Francisco in 1973. In the next ten years, as her biographers stated, “She had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime”. She worked as a composer, writing for singer Roberta Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts and documentaries, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and was named visiting professors of several colleges and universities. She was “a reluctant actor”, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She began being awarded with hundreds of awards and honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.
In all the days of my life, I never met a woman who was more completely herself than Maya Angelou. She fully inhabits and owns every space of herself with no pretense and no false modesty. She has a certain way of being in this world. When you walk into a room and she’s there, you know it. She is fully aware of what it means to be human, and share that humanity with others. Being around her makes you want to do the same, be more fully your own self.–Oprah Winfrey, 2008
In the late ’70s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey’s close friend and mentor.[note 7] In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced. Her attempts at producing and directing films were frustrated throughout the 80s. She returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. Also in 1981, the mother of her son Guy’s child disappeared with him; it took eight years to find Angelou’s grandson.[note 8]
In 1993, Antelou recited her poem On the Pulse of Morning at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal “across racial, economic, and educational boundaries”. The recording of the poem was awarded a Grammy Award. In June 1995, she delivered what Richard Long called her “second ‘public’ poem”, entitled “A Brave and Startling Truth”, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Angelou finally achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, Down in the Delta, which featured actors such as Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes.
Angelou’s mother Vivian Baxter and brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., both of whom were important figures in her life and her books, died; her mother in 1991 and her brother in 2000 after a series of strokes. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit in a customized tour bus, something she continued into her eighties. In 2000, she created a successful collection of products for Hallmark, including greeting cards and decorative household items. Over thirty years after Angelou began writing her life story, Angelou completed the sixth and final autobiography in her series of six, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002.
Angelou campaigned for Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries. When Clinton’s campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Senator Barack Obama, who won the election and became the first African American president of the United States. She stated, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism”. In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. They consisted of over 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, fan mail, and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues such as Robert Loomis.
Angelou’s workMain article: List of Maya Angelou works
Although Angelou wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, without the intention of writing a series, she went on to write five additional volumes. The volumes “stretch over time and place”, from Arkansas to Africa and back to the U.S., and take place from the beginnings of World War II to King’s assassination. Critics have tended to judge Angelou’s subsequent autobiographies “in light of the first”, with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou has written collections of essays, including Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993) and Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997), which writer Hilton Als called her “wisdom books” and “homilies strung together with autobiographical texts”. Angelou has used the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, who retired in 2011 and has been called “one of publishing’s hall of fame editors. Angelou has said regarding Loomis: “We have a relationship that’s kind of famous among publishers”.
All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated”. –Maya Angelou
Angelou’s long and extensive career also includes poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting, and public speaking. She is a prolific writer of poetry; her volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during his inauguration in 1993.
Angelou’s successful acting career has included roles in numerous plays, films, and television programs, including her appearance in the television mini-series Roots in 1977. Her screenplay,Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a Black woman to be produced and she was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties.
Reception and legacyInfluence
President Barack Obama presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Scholar John McWhorter agreed, seeing Angelou’s works, which he called “tracts”, as “apologetic writing” more than autobiographical. He placed Angelou in the tradition of African American literature as a defense of Black culture, which he called “a literary manifestation of the imperative that reigned in the black scholarship of the period”.Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird “a work of art that eludes description”, has insisted that Angelou’s autobiographies set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole. Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. It made her “without a doubt, … America’s most visible black woman autobiographer”, and “a major autobiographical voice of the time”. As writer Gary Younge has said, “Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou’s life literally is her work”.
Author Hilton Als has insisted that although Caged Bird was an important contribution to the increase of black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributed its success less to its originality than with “its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist”, or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Als also insisted that Angelou’s writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, has freed many other female writers to “open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world”. Angelou biographer Joanne M. Braxton has insisted that Caged Bird was “perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing” autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era.
Critical receptionReviewer Elsie B. Washington, most likely due to President Clinton’s choice of Angelou to recite her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at his 1993 inauguration, has called Angelou “the black woman’s poet laureate” Sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300–600% the week after Angelou’s recitation. Bantam Books had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. Random House, which published Angelou’s hardcover books and published the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase. Angelou has famously said, in response to criticism regarding using the details of her life in her work, “I agree with Balzac and 19th-century writers, black and white, who say, ‘I write for money’”.
Angelou’s books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, causing their removal from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to Caged Bird’s depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence. Some have been critical of the book’s sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions. Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, sixth on the ALA’s 2000-2009 list, and one of the ten books most frequently banned from high school and junior high school libraries and classrooms.
Uses in educationAngelou’s autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teacher education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has trained teachers how to “talk about race” in their classrooms with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. According to Glazier, Angelou’s use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, have led readers of Angelou’s autobiographies unsure of what she “left out” and how they should respond to the events Angelou describes. Angelou’s depictions of her experiences of racism has forced white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own “privileged status”. Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers have tended to react to her storytelling with “surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography”.
Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener insisted that Angelou’s book has provided a “useful framework” for exploring the obstacles many children like have Maya faced and how communities have helped children succeed as Angelou did. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He found the book a “highly effective” tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.
Style and genreAngelou’s use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction, but Angelou has characterized them as autobiographies. As feminist scholar Maria Lauret has stated, Angelou has made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Scholar Mary Jane Lupton has insisted that all of Angelou’s autobiographies conform to the genre’s standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme. Angelou has also recognized that there are fictional aspects to her books. Lupton has stated that Angelou has tended to “diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth”, which has paralleled the conventions of much of African American autobiography written during the abolitionist period of U.S. history, when as both Lupton and African American scholar Crispin Sartwell put it, the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection.Scholar Lyman B. Hagen places Angelou in the long tradition of African American autobiography, but insists that Angelou has created a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form.
The challenge for much of the history of African American literature was that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature before they could accomplish their political goals, which was why Angelou’s editor Robert Loomis was able to dare her into writing Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered “high art”. Angelou has acknowledged that she has followed the slave narrative tradition of “speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning ‘we’”. Scholar John McWhorter called Angelou’s books “tracts” that defended African-American culture and fought against negative stereotypes. According to McWhorter, Angelou structured her books, which to him seemed to be written more for children than for adults, to support her defense of Black culture. McWhorter saw Angelou as she depicted herself in her autobiographies “as a kind of stand-in figure for the Black American in Troubled Times”. Although McWhorter saw Angelou’s works as dated, he recognized that “she has helped to pave the way for contemporary black writers who are able to enjoy the luxury of being merely individuals, no longer representatives of the race, only themselves. Scholar Lynn Z. Bloom has compared Angelou’s works to the writings of Frederick Douglass, stating that both fulfilled the same purpose: to describe Black culture and to interpret it for her wider, white audience.
According to scholar Sondra O’Neale, whereas Angelou’s poetry could be placed within the African American oral tradition, her prose “follows classic technique in nonpoetic Western forms”. O’Neale stated that although Angelou avoided a “monolithic Black language”, she accomplished, through direct dialogue, of what O’Neale called a “more expected ghetto expressiveness”. McWhorter, however, found both the language Angelou used in her autobiographies and the people she depicted unrealistic, resulting in a separation between her and her audience. As McWhorter stated, “I have never read autobiographical writing where I had such a hard time summoning a sense of how the subject talks, or a sense of who the subject really is”. McWhorter asserted, for example, that Angelou’s depiction of key figures like herself, her son Guy, and mother Vivian did not speak as one would expect, and that their speech was “cleaned up”. Guy, for example, represented the young Black male, while Vivian represented the idealized mother figure. The stiff language Angelou used, both in her text and in the language of her subjects, was intended to prove that Blacks were able to competently use standard English.
McWhorter recognized, however, that much of the reason for Angelou’s style was the “apologetic” nature of her writing. When Angelou wrote Caged Bird at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature at the time was “organic unity”, and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criteria. The events in her books were episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements did not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they were placed to emphasize the themes of her books. English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has asserted that “Angelou’s poetry and prose are similar”. They both relied on her “direct voice”, which alternated steady rhythms with syncopated patterns and used similes and metaphors (i.e., the caged bird). According to Hagen, Angelou’s works have been influenced by both conventional literary and the oral traditions of the African American community. For example, she referenced over 100 literary characters throughout her books and poetry. In addition, she used the elements of blues music, including the act of testimony when speaking of one’s life and struggles, ironic understatement, and the use of natural metaphors, rhythms, and intonations. Angelou, instead of depending upon plot, used personal and historical events to shape her books.
I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.
Maya Angelou, 1999
“I also wear a hat or a very tightly pulled head tie when I write. I suppose I hope by doing that I will keep my brains from seeping out of my scalp and running in great gray blobs down my neck, into my ears, and over my face”.
Maya Angelou, 1986
“Nothing so frightens me as writing, but nothing so satisfies me. It’s like a swimmer in the [English] Channel: you face the stingrays and waves and cold and grease, and finally you reach the other shore, and you put your foot on the ground—Aaaahhhh!”—Maya Angelou, 1989
Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has used the same “writing ritual” for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon. She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. Angelou went through this process to “enchant” herself, and as she has said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, “relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang.” She placed herself back in the time she is writing about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to “tell the human truth” about her life. Angelou has stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, “It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!” She did not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in “telling the truth”.
Themes in Angelou’s autobiographiesRacismBeginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and ending with her final autobiography A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Angelou used the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage described in the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “Sympathy”, as a “central image” throughout all of her autobiographies. Like elements within a prison narrative, the caged bird represented Angelou’s confinement resulting from racism and oppression. This metaphor also invoked the “supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle”. Reviewer Hilton Als observed that Angelou’s witness of the evil in her society, “generally directed at black women”, shaped Angelou’s young life and informed her views into adulthood. Despite this, scholar Lynn Z. Bloom asserted that Angelou’s autobiographies and lectures, which he called “ranging in tone from warmly humorous to bitterly satiric”, has gained a respectful and enthusiastic response, both from the general public and from critics.
At least one reviewer has criticized Angelou for harboring “a fanatic hostility expressed toward all white people”, but writer Lyman B. Hagen disagreed, stating that like Angelou’s friend and mentor Langston Hughes, Angelou explained and illuminated the condition of African Americans, but without alienating her readers. For example, Angelou promoted the importance of hard work, a common theme in slave narratives, throughout all her autobiographies, in order to break the African American stereotype of laziness. In addition, Angelou’s description of the strong and cohesive Black community of Stamps demonstrated how African Americans have subverted repressive institutions to withstand racism. Scholar Liliane K. Arensberg insisted that Angelou demonstrated how she evolved out of her “racial hatred”; in Caged Bird, for example, Angelou wished that she could become white, but she later she shed her self-loathing and embraced a strong racial identity.
“I write because I am a Black woman, listening attentively to her people”.
Maya Angelou, 1984
Critic Pierre A. Walker has placed Angelou’s autobiographies in the African American literature tradition of political protest written in the years following the American Civil Rights movement. Walker has emphasized that the unity of Angelou’s autobiographies underscored one of Angelou’s central themes: the injustice of racism and how to fight it. Walker has also stated that Angelou’s biographies, beginning with Caged Bird, consisted of “a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression”. This sequence led Angelou, as the protagonist, from “helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest” throughout all six of her autobiographies. Hagen stated that Angelou changed, in the course of her autobiographies, her views about Black-white relationships and learned to accept different points of views. It was Angelou’s “mental adjustments” regarding race, and about white people, that provided Angelou with freedom. He added that one of Angelou’s “universal themes” was that humans tend to be more alike than different.
“Human beings are more alike than unalike”.
Maya Angelou, 1994 (Scholar Mary Jane Lupton has called this one of Angelou’s most well-known sayings.
In Angelou’s third autobiography Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, in which she married a white man, she came into intimate contact with whites for the first time—whites very different than the racist people she encountered in her childhood. She discovered, as critic Selwyn R. Cudjoe put it, that her stereotypes of Whites were developed to protect herself from their cruelty and indifference. As critic Dolly A. McPherson stated, “Conditioned by earlier experiences, Angelou distrusts everyone, especially whites. Nevertheless, she is repeatedly surprised by the kindness and goodwill of many whites she meets, and, thus, her suspicions begin to soften into understanding”. Cudjoe stated that in Singin’ and Swingin’ , Angelou effectively demonstrated “the inviolability of the African American personhood”,as well as her own closely guarded defense of it. In order for her to have any positive relationships with whites and people of other races, however, McPherson insisted that Angelou “must examine and discard her stereotypical views about Whites”. Scholar Lyman B. Hagen agreed and pointed out that Angelou had to re-examine her lingering prejudices when faced with the broader world full of whites. As Hagen also stated, however, this was a complex process, since most of Angelou’s experiences with whites were positive during this time. Cudjoe stated that Angelou moved between the white and Black worlds, both defining herself as a member of her community and encountering whites in “a much fuller, more sensuous manner”. Angelou’s experiences with the Porgy and Bess tour, as described in Singin’ and Swingin’, expanded her understanding of other races and race relations as she met people of different nationalities during her travels. All these experiences were instrumental in Angelou’s “movement toward adulthood” and served as a basis for her later acceptance and tolerance of other races.
Angelou’s fourth autobiography The Heart of a Woman opened with Angelou and her son Guy living in an experimental commune with whites, in an attempt to participate in the new openness between Blacks and whites. She was not completely comfortable with the arrangement, however; as Lupton pointed out, Angelou never named her roommates. For the most part, Angelou was able to “cheerfully coexist” with whites in this book, but she occasionally encountered prejudice similar to earlier episodes, like when she required the assistance of white friends to rent a home in a segregated neighborhood. Lupton stated that compared to her other books, Angelou was “a long way” from her interactions with whites and people of other races. Hagen called the descriptions of whites and the hopes for eventual equality in this book “optimistic”. Angelou continued, however, her indictment of white power structure and her protests against racial injustice that has been a theme throughout all her books. Instead of offering solutions, however, Hagen stated that she simply reports, reacts, and dramatizes events.
Angelou became more “politicized” in The Heart of Woman, and developed a new sense of Black identity. As McPherson stated, even Angelou’s decision to leave show business was political. McPherson also stated that this book was “a social and cultural history of Black Americans” during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Angelou saw herself as a “personal historian” of both the Civil Rights movement and the Black literary movement of the time. She became more attracted to the causes of Black militants, both in the U.S. and in Africa, to the point of entering into a relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, and became more committed to activism. She became an active political protestor during this period, but she did not think of herself in that way. Instead, the focus was on herself, and she used the autobiographical form to demonstrate how the Civil Rights movement influenced one person involved in it. According to Hagen, her contributions to civil rights, as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and “eminently effective”.
According to Lupton, “Angelou’s exploration of her African and African-American identities” was an important theme in her fifth autobiography All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. The alliances and relationships with those she met in Ghana contributed to Angelou’s identity and growth. Her experiences as an expatriate helped her come to terms with her personal and historical past, and by the end of the book she was ready to return to America with a deeper understanding of both the African and American parts of her character. McPherson called Angelou’s parallels and connections between Africa and America her “double-consciousness”, which contribute to her understanding of herself.
In Traveling Shoes, Angelou was able to recognize similarities between African and African American culture; as Lupton put it, the “blue songs, shouts, and gospels” she has grown up with in America “echo the rhythms of West Africa”. Angelou’s biographers, writing in A Glorious Celebration, the book published in 2008 for Angelou’s 80th birthday, agreed, stating that Angelou recognized the connections between African and American Black cultures, including the children’s games, the folklore, the spoken and non-verbal languages, the food, sensibilities, and behavior. She connected the behavior of many African mother figures, especially their generosity, with her grandmother’s behaviors. In one of the most significant sections of Traveling Shoes, Angelou recounted an encounter with a West African woman who recognizes her, on the basis of her appearance, as a member of the Bambara group of West Africa. As Lupton stated, these and other experiences in Ghana demonstrated Angelou’s maturity, as a mother able to let go of her adult son, as a woman no longer dependent upon a man, and as an American able to “perceive the roots of her identity” and how they affect her personality.
Also in Traveling Shoes, Angelou came to terms with her difficult past, both as a descendent of Africans taken forcibly to America as slaves and as an African-America who has experienced racism. As she tells an interviewer, she brought her son to Ghana to protect him from the negative effects of racism because she did not think he had the tools to withstand them. For the first time in Angelou’s life, she did not “feel threatened by racial hate” in Ghana. The theme of racism was still an important theme in Traveling Shoes, but she has matured in the way she dealt with it. As Hagen stated, Angelou was “not yet ready to toss off the stings of prejudice, but tolerance and even a certain understanding can be glimpsed”. This was demonstrated in Angelou’s treatment of the “genocidal involvement of Africans in slave-trading”, something that has often been overlooked or misrepresented by other Black writers. Angelou was taught an important lesson about combating racism by Malcolm X, who comparesdit to a mountain in which everyone’s efforts is needed.
Angelou learned about herself and about racism throughout Traveling Shoes, even during her brief tour of Venice and Berlin for The Blacks revival. She revived her passion for African American culture while associating with other African Americans for the first time since moving to Ghana. She compared her experiences of American racism with Germany’s history of racial prejudice and military aggression. The verbal violence of the folk tales shared during her luncheon with her German hosts and Israeli friend was as significant to Angelou as physical violence, to the point that she beaome ill. Angelou’s first-hand experience with fascism, as well as the racist sensibilities of the German family she visited, “help shape and broaden her constantly changing vision” regarding racial prejudice.
IdentityAccording to scholar Yolanda M. Manora, the theme of identity was established from the beginning of Angelou’s series of autobiographies, with the opening lines in Caged Bird, which “foretell Angelou’s autobiographical project: to write the story of the developing black female subject by sharing the tale of one Southern Black girl’s becoming”. As feminist scholar Maria Lauret has indicated, Angelou and other female writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s used the autobiography to reimagine ways of writing about women’s lives and identities in a male-dominated society. Lauret has made a connection between Angelou’s autobiographies, which Lauret called “fictions of subjectivity” and “feminist first-person narratives”, and fictional first-person narratives (such as The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing) written during the same period. Both genres employed the narrator as protagonist and used “the illusion of presence in their mode of signification”. Manora agreed, stating that Angelou broke stereotypes of the African American women “by first establishing and then disrupting dominant images” of the Black female, which set the stage for Angelou’s identity development in her later autobiographies.
When I try to describe myself to God I say, “Lord, remember me? Black? Female? Six-foot tall? The writer?” And I almost always get God’s attention.
Maya Angelou, 2008.
Lauret has stated that “the formation of female cultural identity” has been woven into Angelou’s narratives. Angelou has presented herself as a role model for African American women by reconstructing the Black woman’s image throughout her autobiographies, and has used her many roles, incarnations, and identities to “signify multiple layers of oppression and personal history”. Lauret has viewed Angelou’s themes of the individual’s strength and ability to overcome throughout Angelou’s autobiographies as well. Manora agreed, stating that the women Angelou presents in her autobiographies, especially Caged Bird, influenced the woman Angelou became. Three characters in Caged Bird, Angelou’s mother Vivian, her grandmother Annie Henderson, and Mrs. Flowers (who helps Angelou find her voice again after her rape}, collaborated to “form a triad which serves as the critical matrix in which the child is nurtured and sustained during her journey through Southern Black girlhood”.[note 9]
Author Hilton Als has insisted that while Angelou’s original goal was to “tell the truth about the lives of black women”, her goal evolved in her later volumes to document the ups and downs of her own life. Als has stated that Angelou’s autobiographies had the same structure: a historical overview of the places she was living in at the time and how she coped within the context of a larger white society, as well as the ways that her story played out within that context. Critic Selwyn Cudjoe agreed with Als, and stated that Angelou, especially in her third autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, successfully demonstrated “the inviolability of the [African American] personhood” as she increased positive interactions with whites. In Angelou’s second volume, Gather Together in My Name, Angelou was concerned with what it meant to be a black female in the U.S., but she focused upon herself at a certain point in history. As Cudjoe has said, “It is almost as though the incidents in the text were simply ‘gathered together’ under the name of Maya Angelou”.
Family”Kinship concerns”, from the character-defining experience of Angelou’s parents’ abandonment to her relationships with her son, husbands, and lovers are important in all of her books. Scholar Mary Jane Lupton has stated that “the mother-child pattern” was the only unifying theme that connected all of Angelou’s autobiographies. African American literature scholar Dolly McPherson has insisted that Angelou’s concept of family must be understood in the light of the way in which she and her older brother were displaced by their parents at the beginning ofCaged Bird. Motherhood was a “prevailing theme” in all of Angelou’s autobiographies, specifically her experiences as a single mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter. Lupton believed that Angelou’s plot construction and character development were influenced by this mother/child motif found in the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Jessie Fauset.
Scholar Yolanda M. Manora has insisted that three women in Caged Bird—the “hybridized mother” of Angelou’s grandmother, her mother, and her friend Mrs. Flowers—taught her how to be a mother to her son Guy. Although Angelou’s grandmother died early in the series, in her third autobiography Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Angelou quoted her many times throughout the series. Angelou’s desire for security for Guy drove her to marry Tosh Angelos in Singin’ and Swingin’, and drove many of her decisions, job choices, and romantic relationships. Koyana stated that due to Angelou’s race and economic background, her “experience of motherhood is inseparably intertwined with work”. According to Koyana, “…Black motherhood always encompassed work”. Angelou’s long list of occupations attested to the challenges, especially in her second autobiography Gather Together in My Name, she faced as a working teenager mother, which often led Angelou to “some quick and easy decisions”. Koyana stated that it was not until Angelou was able to take advantage of opportunities such as her role in Porgy and Bess when she was able to fully support her and Guy, and the quality of her life and her contribution to society improved. It was impossible, however, for Angelou to become successful without her extended family to provide childcare for her; i.e., when she left Guy in the care of his grandmother in spite of the conflict and guilt she experienced as a result (something Koyana insisted was imposed on her by the larger society), a pattern established in Caged Bird by her own mother when she left Angelou and her brother in the care of Angelou’s grandmother.
The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough.
Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1993) 
Scholar Mary Burgher has stated that Black women autobiographers like Angelou have debunked the stereotypes of African American mothers of “breeder and matriarch” and have presented them as having “a creative and personally fulfilling role”. Scholar Sondra O’Neale agreed, and insisted that Angelou’s autobiographies presented Black women differently than literature had portrayed them up to that time. O’Neale stated that “no Black woman in the world of Angelou’s books are losers”, and that Angelou was the third generation of “brilliantly resourceful females” who overcame the obstacles of racism and oppression. African American literature professor Siphokazi Koyana recognized that Angelou depicted women, which Koyana called her “womanist theories”, in an era of cultural transition, and that her books described one Black woman’s “attempt to forge and maintain a healthy sense of self”. Angelou’s experiences as a working-class single mother, Koyana insisted, challenged traditional and Western viewpoints of women and family life, and that Angelou’s autobiographies were “a powerful attack on the nuclear family structure”. Koyana went on to state that Angelou was describing societal forces that eventually expanded to the white family, and that Angelou’s strategies of economic survival and experiences of family structure enabled Black families “to survive the harsh economic realities”.
Awards and honorsMain article: List of awards and nominations received by Maya Angelou
Angelou is one of the most honored writers of her generation. She has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors have included a National Book Award nomination for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. In 1995, Angelou’s publishing company, Random House, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List. She has served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees.
ReferencesFootnotes1.^ In her fifth autobiography All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1987), Angelou recounts being identified, on the basis of her appearance, as part of the Bambara people, a subset of the Mande (Angelou 1987, pp. 206—207).
2.^ According to Angelou, Annie Henderson built her business with food stalls catering to Black workers, which eventually developed into a store.
3.^ Reviewer John M. Miller calls Angelou’s performance of her song, “All That Happens in the Marketplace” the “most genuine musical moment in the film”.
4.^ Guy Johnson, who as a result of this accident in Accra and one in the late 1960s, underwent a series of spinal surgeries. He also, like his mother, became a writer and poet.
5.^ Angelou called her friendship with Malcolm X “a brother/sister relationship”.
6.^ Angelou did not celebrate her birthday for many years, choosing instead to send flowers to King’s widow Coretta Scott King.
7.^ Angelou dedicated her 1993 book of essays Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now to Winfrey 8.^ In Angelou’s essay, “My Grandson, Home at Last”, published in Woman’s Day in 1986, she describes the kidnapping and her response to it.
9.^ Manora categorized these women into three archetypes, which represented the Black woman in Angelou’s autobiographies: Vivian as “the Black Jezebel”, Annie as the “Black Matriarch”, and Mrs. Flowers as “the Lady”.