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Hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary African-American literature, Maya Angelou is best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), the first of her series of autobiographical works. Her autobiography and poetry have generated great interest because they reflect her tenacity in overcoming social obstacles and her struggle for self-acceptance. Critics particularly praise her dynamic prose style, poignant satire, and her universal messages relevant to the human condition. Angelou herself explained: ”I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at and still survive.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Social and Economic Hardship
Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was raised, therefore, during the Great Depression, a period of wide spread economic disparity in America marked by pervasive poverty and unemployment. Her memoirs capture the effects of this difficult time period and reflect its particular influence on African-American families that would battle poverty as well as racial prejudice. As Angelou relates in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she was just three years old when her parents divorced. Divorce, during this time period, was uncommon, and her family faced ostracism within their community. After the divorce, her father sent Angelou and her four-year-old brother alone by train to the home of his mother in Stamps, Arkansas. In Stamps, a segregated town, ”Momma” (as Angelou and her brother Bailey called their grandmother) took care of the children and ran a lunch business and a store. The children were expected to stay clean and sinless and to do well in school. Although she followed the example of her independent and strong-willed grandmother, Angelou felt ugly and unloved. When she was seven years old, Maya and her brother were sent back to St. Louis to live with their mother.
Recovering from Trauma
Life in St. Louis was different from that in Stamps; Angelou was unprepared for the rushing noises of city life and the Saturday night parties thrown by her socialite mother. Soon after arriving, Angelou would face an act of violence that would change the course of her life and become the central scene of her autobiographical works. In one of the most evocative (and controversial) moments in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou describes how she was first lovingly cuddled, then raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When the man was murdered by her uncles for his crime, Angelou felt responsible, and she stopped talking. She and her brother were sent back to Stamps. Angelou remained mute for five years, but she developed a love for language and the spoken word. She read and memorized books, including the works of black authors and poets Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Even though she and Bailey were discouraged from reading the works of white writers at home, Angelou read and fell in love with the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe. When Angelou was twelve,
Mrs. Flowers, an educated black woman, finally got her to speak again. Mrs. Flowers, as Angelou recalled in Mrs. Flowers: A Moment of Friendship, emphasized the importance of the spoken word, explained the nature of and importance of education, and instilled in Angelou a love of poetry.
When race relations made Stamps a dangerous place for Angelou and her brother, ”Momma” took the children to San Francisco, where Angelou’s mother was working as a professional gambler. World War II was raging, and while San Franciscans prepared for air raids that never came, Angelou prepared for the rest of her life by attending George Washington High School and by taking lessons in dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. When Angelou, just seventeen, graduated from high school and gave birth to a son, she began to work as well. She worked as the first female and black street car conductor in San Francisco.
As a young black woman growing up in the South, and later in wartime San Francisco, Angelou faced racism from whites and poor treatment from many men. She found that, in this position, few things in life came easily to her. Instead of letting forces beyond her control overcome her, Angelou began to forge art from her early experiences and to change the world as she had once known it. She became a singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first female black director. She became a writer, editor, essayist, playwright, poet, and screenwriter.
Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
Angelou married a white ex-sailor, Tosh Angelos, in 1950. The pair did not have much in common, and Angelou began to take note of the reaction of people—especially African Americans—to their union, a subject she would discuss at length in her memoirs. After they separated, Angelou continued her study of dance in New York City. Then, with the encouragement of writer John Killens, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and met James Baldwin and other important writers. It was during this time that Angelou had the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. Inspired by his message, she decided to become an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, which aimed for social and racial equality in the years following World War II. So, with comedian Godfrey Cambridge, she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Cabaret for Freedom in 1960, a benefit for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Given the organizational abilities she demonstrated as she worked for the benefit, she was offered a position as the northern coordinator for Dr. King’s SCLC.
During this period Angelou began to live with Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter. With Angelou’s son Guy, they relocated to Cairo, Egypt. There, Angelou found work as an associate editor at the Arab Observer. As she recalled in The Heart of a Woman, she learned a great deal about writing there, but Vusumzi could not tolerate the fact that she was working. After her relationship with him ended, Angelou went on to Ghana, in West Africa, in 1962. She worked at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama as an assistant administrator.
Autobiography and a New Literary Career
Angelou returned to the United States in the mid-1960s and found a position as a lecturer at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1966. In this period, she was encouraged by author James Baldwin and Random House publishers to write an autobiography. Initially, Angelou declined offers but eventually changed her mind and wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book, which chronicles Angelou’s childhood and ends with the birth of her son Guy, bears what Selwyn R. Cudjoe in Black Women Writers calls a burden ”to demonstrate the manner in which the Black female is violated …in her tender years and to demonstrate the ‘unnecessary insult’ of Southern girlhood in her movement to adolescence.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings won immediate success and a nomination for a National Book Award.
Although Angelou did not write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with the intention of writing other autobiographies, she eventually wrote four more, so it may be read as the first in a series. Most critics have judged the subsequent autobiographies in light of the first, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains the most highly praised. Gather Together in My Name (1974) begins when Angelou is seventeen and a new mother; it describes a destructive love affair, Angelou’s work as a prostitute, her rejection of drug addiction, and the kid napping of her son. The next volumes of Angelou’s autobiography, which include Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)—continue to trace the author’s psychological, spiritual, and political odyssey. As she emerges from a disturbing and oppressive childhood to become a prominent figure in contemporary American literature, Angelou’s quest for self-identity and emotional fulfillment results in extraordinary experiences, such as encounters with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Angelou’s personal involvement with the civil rights and feminist movements both in the United States and in Africa, her developing relationship with her son, and her knowledge of the hard ships associated with the lower class of American society are recurrent themes throughout the series.
While writing her memoirs, Angelou also published poems and was recognized for her 1971 collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie. One of the most important sources of Angelou’s fame in the early 1990s was President Bill Clinton’s invitation to write and read the first inaugural poem in decades. ”On the Pulse of Morning” calls for peace, racial and religious harmony, and social justice for people of different origins, incomes, genders, and sexual orientations. It recalls the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ”I Have a Dream” speech as it urges America to ”Give birth again / To the Dream” of equality. Angelou challenged the new administration and all Americans to work together for progress. Angelou continues her work as a writer and activist and is a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Works in Literary Context
The Female African-American Voice and the Civil Rights Movement
Angelou has been a social activist since the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, which sought equal rights for all races and ethnicities. She also has been a spokeswoman for the feminist movement, which functioned in the 1960s under the credo ”the personal is the political.” Her autobiographies in particular embody this belief; not only does I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings emphasize the impact sexual abuse had on Angelou’s life, but her later works document her personal involvement with political activists such as Mar tin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Her works are often compared to similarly feminist African American writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
The Tradition of the Memoir
Angelou’s autobiographical works have an important place in the African-American tradition of personal narrative, and they continue to garner praise for their honesty and moving sense of dignity. Although an accomplished poet and dramatist, Angelou is most dedicated to the art of autobiography, and her memoirs have been compared in importance to such works as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Angelou acknowledges herself as part of this tradition, and explains that she is not afraid of the ties [between past and present]. I cherish them, rather. It’s the vulnerability… it’s allowing oneself to be hypnotized. That’s frightening because we have no defenses, nothing. We’ve slipped down the well and every side is slippery. And how on earth are you going to come out? That’s scary. But I’ve chosen it, and I’ve chosen this mode as my mode.
Works in Critical Context
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Angelou wrote this first volume of her autobiography after friends, among them such notable writers as James Baldwin and Jules Feiffer, suggested she write about her childhood spent between rural, segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where her pious grandmother owned a general store, and St. Louis, Missouri, where her worldly, glamorous mother lived. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings gained instant international acclaim, and was nominated for a National Book Award. In addition to being a trenchant account of a black girl’s coming of age, this work affords insights into the social and political tensions of the 1930s. Sidonie Ann Smith echoed many critics when she wrote: ”Angelou’s 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.”
Angelou’s four subsequent memoirs are generally considered inferior to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, critics cite lack of moral complexity and failure to generate empathy or universal appeal. Lynn Z. Bloom believes that perhaps the decreasing popularity of subsequent volumes resulted because Angelou appeared a ”less admirable” character as her autobiography progressed. In Gather Together in My Name, for example, Angelou barely escapes a life of prostitution and drug addiction, in the process, Bloom maintains, Angelou ”abandons or jeopardizes the maturity, honesty, and intuitive good judgment toward which she had been moving in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Nevertheless, critics continue to praise Angelou’s narrative skills and her impassioned responses to the challenges in her life.
Angelou’s poetry, which is collected in such volumes as Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971) and And Still I Rise (1976), is fashioned almost entirely of short lyrics and jazzy rhythms. Although her poetry has contributed to her reputation and is especially popular among young people, most commentators reserve their highest praise for her prose. Angelou’s dependence on alliteration, her heavy use of short lines, and her conventional vocabulary has led several critics to declare her poetry superficial and devoid of her celebrated humor. Other reviewers, however, praise her poetic style as refreshing and graceful. They also laud Angelou for addressing social and political issues relevant to African Americans and for challenging the validity of traditional American values and myths.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
- Braxton, Joanne M., ed. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- King, Sarah E. Maya Angelou: Greeting the Morning. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1994.
- Angaza, Maitefa. ”Maya: A Precious Prism.” Black Issues Book Review, March, 2001: p. 30. Angelou, Maya and George Plimpton. ”The Art of Fiction CXIX: Maya
- Angelou,” Paris Review, Fall 1990:pp. 145-167.
- Lupton, Mary Jane. ”Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1990: pp. 257-276.
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