Marguerite Annie Johnson, better known as Maya Angelou (May 28, 2014), was an American writer, poet, singer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays and several books of poetry. She also participated, either as an actress, dancer, director or producer, in a long list of musicals, plays, films and television programs that were relevant for more than 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than fifty honorary degrees. As an author she was especially known for her series of seven autobiographies, the first of which, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which describes the burden of racial segregation in her childhood and adolescence, won her international recognition.
Often described as a “renaissance woman” for the multiple talents she developed throughout her life, she became an author and poet after working in the most diverse professions, from cook, nightclub dancer or member of the cast of Porgy and Bess, to coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and collaborated closely with such prominent figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In 1982 she was appointed professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salen, North Carolina. Later, in 1993, Angelou achieved great notoriety when she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, thus becoming the first poet to participate in a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy”s inauguration in 1961.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she demonstrated her competence in a genre, that of autobiography, particularly important for the African-American minority as an open forum in which to report on the sad condition of their race, to expose the details of their struggle and to promote a more just society. An exceptional witness of her time, the author was able to transform her experiences into a collective and universal experience. Following in the footsteps of Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou is part of that extraordinary group of black women writers who managed to leave marginality to become protagonists and shape the literary tradition in which they are inscribed.
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a Navy porter and nutritionist, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse. Angelou”s older brother Bailey Jr. nicknamed her “Maya,” a name derived from “My” or “Mya sister, nicknamed her “Maya,” a name derived from “My” or “Mya sister.” When Angelou was three and her brother was four, their parents” “calamitous” marriage ended and their father sent them alone by train to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. Angelou”s grandmother, whom she called Momma and who had a profound influence on her life, was a “stunning exception” to the harsh economic conditions of African Americans at the time, as she managed to prosper during the Great Depression and World War II because she owned a store and knew how to make “wise and honest investments.”
Four years later, the children”s father “showed up at Stamps unannounced” and took them to their mother, Vivian, who lived in St. Louis. At the age of eight, their mother”s boyfriend, a man named Freeman, sexually abused her. Maya eventually confessed to her brother, who told the rest of the family. A trial ensued, at which Maya had to testify, and Freeman was found guilty, although he was released from jail shortly thereafter. However, four days later he was murdered, probably at the hands of Maya”s uncles. The whole experience deeply traumatized the girl, to the point that she stopped speaking for almost five years. As she explained in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “I thought my voice had killed him; I killed that man, because I said his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice could kill anyone…” According to Marcia Ann Gillespie, it was during this period of silence that Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love of books and literature, and her ability to observe the world around her.
Shortly after Freeman”s murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their paternal grandmother, Momma. Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and family friend, got Maya talking again. Thanks to her, the young girl also became familiar with the works of authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would influence her life and work. She also read black feminist authors such as Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.
When Angelou was fourteen years old, she and her brother returned once again to their mother, who had moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Angelou attended the California School of Social Work. Before graduating, she worked as a conductress on San Francisco streetcars, becoming, in fact, the first black woman to get that job in the city despite many setbacks. It would be the first of many barriers Angelou managed to break down for African Americans.
Three weeks after finishing high school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson), the fruit of a single love affair. Following the birth of her son, Angelou refused the help offered by her mother, Vivian, with whom she always had an ambivalent relationship. She decided to raise her son on her own and was forced, therefore, to do numerous unskilled jobs, including, for a short period of time, as a prostitute or pimp.
Adult life and first professional stage: 1951-61
In 1951, Maya married a Greek-born electrician, former sailor and aspiring musician, Tosh Angelos, even though interracial relationships were frowned upon at the time and her mother did not approve of such a union. Angelou began taking modern dance lessons and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou and Ailey formed a dance couple and called themselves “Al and Rita.” Together they performed for African American fraternal organizations throughout San Francisco, though without much success. Later, Angelou, her husband and son moved to New York so she could study African dance with dancer Pearl Primus. They returned to San Francisco the following year.
After Angelou”s marriage ended in 1954, she turned to dancing professionally in nightclubs around San Francisco, including the Purple Onion, where she danced and sang calypso music. At the time she was still known as “Marguerite Johnson”, or “Rita”, but at the suggestion of her Purple Onion managers and fans, she changed her professional name to “Maya Angelou”, a more sonorous “distinctive name” based on her married name. During 1954 and 1955, Angelou toured Europe with the opera production of Porgy and Bess. She set out to learn the language of each country she visited, and within a few years she had mastered several languages. In 1957, thanks to her popularity with calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was re-released on CD in 1996. Soon after, she participated in an off-Broadway play) that served as the inspiration for the 1957 film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and danced to her own compositions.
Maya Angelou met novelist John Oliver Killens in 1959 and, at his insistence, moved again, with her son Guy, to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She then joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several African-American writers, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall and Julian Mayfield. There she heard, for the first time, that she really had a story to tell and was able to publish her first work. In 1960, she was able to hear civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in person at a church in Harlem. She was so deeply impressed that she and John Killens organized the “legendary” Cabaret for Freedom to raise funds for the SCLS (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). According to researcher Lyman B. Hagen, Angelou”s contributions as a fundraiser for the civil rights movement and her work as a coordinator at SCLC were successful and “eminently effective.” When she had been working for SCLC for about two months, Angelou had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. in person. She was struck by his closeness, understanding and words of comfort as Maya told her of her concern over the imprisonment of her brother, Bailey. Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this period, during which she also met Malcolm X in person after participating in a protest at the United Nations headquarters in New York over the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the independent Congo.
Africa to Caged Bird: 1961-69
In 1961, Angelou acted in Jean Genet”s well-known play The Negroes, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge and Cicely Tyson. That year was also key in her life because she met the South African activist Vusumzi Make, who had had to flee his country, and that would lead her to radically change her life and to detach herself, to a large extent, from what was happening in the United States at a key moment for the African-American minority.
Angelou and Make, who considered themselves married although they never officially wed, moved with Maya”s son Guy to Cairo, where, despite lacking experience, she landed a job as an associate editor at the leading English-language weekly newspaper The Arab Observer. There, despite lacking experience, she landed a job as an associate editor at the leading English-language weekly newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, the capital of Ghana, for him to study at university. Guy was involved in a very serious car accident, which led Angelou to remain in Accra until 1965. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana and integrated into the American-African expatriate community, although she failed to feel Ghanaian (despite her efforts to learn Fanti) because of profound differences in mentality. Again displaying her many talents, she worked as an editor for The African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times newspaper, a writer and broadcaster for Ghana Radio, and an actress for the Ghana National Theater, participating in revivals of the play The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.
In Accra, Angelou met Malcolm X again during his visit to Ghana in the early 1960s to enlist the support of President Nkrumah when he planned to denounce the plight of African Americans at the United Nations. Angelou returned to the United States in 1965 to help Malcolm X build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Before beginning her collaboration, the writer and activist decided to visit her mother in Hawaii, where she received the news of Malcolm X”s assassination. Deeply affected and aimless, Angelou spent some time with her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and later moved back to Los Angeles to concentrate on her writing career. She worked as a market researcher in Watts (Los Angeles neighborhood), where she witnessed the serious riots and unrest of the summer of 1965. She acted and wrote plays and returned to New York in 1967. There she resumed her friendship with the writer Rosa Guy and with James Baldwin, whom she had met in Paris in the 1950”s. Her friend Jerry Purcell provided Angelou with financial support so that she could continue her writing career.
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed but “postponed it again” and, in what Gillespie calls “a macabre twist of fate,” Martin L. King was assassinated on the same day as the writer”s 40th birthday, April 4 of that year. This tragedy plunged her into a depression, from which she was helped out by her friend James Baldwin. As Gillespie expounds, “While 1968 was a year of much pain, loss and sadness, it was also the year America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou”s spirit and creative genius. Despite having almost no experience, she wrote, produced and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black! a documentary series about the connection between blues music and the African heritage of black Americans and what Angelou called “Africanism still alive in the U.S.” The program was broadcast on National Education Television, the forerunner of the PBS signal. 1968 was also the year the author wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim. Angelou later claimed that the inspiration came while at a dinner party with her friend James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, and Random House publisher Robert Loomis, who challenged her to write an autobiography that would read like a novel.
The film Georgia, Georgia, produced by a Swedish film company, filmed in Sweden and released in 1972, featured a screenplay written by Maya Angelou (the first written by an African-American woman). Angelou also composed the music for the film, although she had little involvement in the filming of the movie. Subsequently, in 1973 Angelou married Paul du Feu, a Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of Germaine Greer. Over the next ten years, according to Gillespie, “She had achieved more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime. She worked as a composer and writer for singer Roberta Flack, composed music for several films, wrote articles, short stories, television scripts, documentaries, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays and was appointed a visiting professor at many universities. She was even a “reluctant actress”, and was nominated in 1973 for a Tony Award for her role in Look Away. As a theater director, in 1988 she staged a new production of Errol John Moon”s play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the Almeida Theatre in London.
In 1977, Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the popular television miniseries Roots. She earned multiple awards and accolades during this period, including more than thirty honorary degrees from universities around the world. In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey, when she was just a television host in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become a good friend and mentor to Winfrey, now considered one of the most influential women in the U.S. In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced. She then returned to the southern United States, as she felt she had to come to terms and make peace with her past. Despite not having a college degree, she accepted the Reynolds Chair in American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she was one of the few full-time professors. From that point on, Angelou considered herself, fundamentally, “a teacher who writes.” In her classes she taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing. According to The Winston-Salem Journal, however, although Angelou made many friends on campus, “she never overcame criticism from people who believed she was more of a celebrity than an intellectual…and that her salary was excessive.” The last course she taught at Wake Forest University was in 2011 and she gave her last speech there in late 2013. Beginning in the 1990s, Angelou had become a famous lecturer, actively participating in the lecture circuit until she was well into her eighties.
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton”s inauguration, becoming the first poet to recite her work at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy”s 1961 inauguration. The recording of the poem won a Grammy Award. In June 1995 she gave what Richard Long called her “second ”public” poem,” entitled “A Brave and Startling Truth,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Angelou achieved her long-desired goal of directing a film in 1996 with Down in the Delta, which starred Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. Also in 1996, she collaborated with R&B artists Ashford & Simpson on seven of the eleven songs on their album Been Found, achieving three Billboard Chart placements. In 2000, driven by her remarkable entrepreneurial spirit, she created a successful collection of products for the Hallmark Company, including greeting cards and home decor items. Some critics then accused her of being too commercial, to which she responded that it had been done in a way that was perfectly congruent with her role as “poet of the people”. At the same time, after more than thirty years, Angelou continued to write the story of her life and thus completed her sixth autobiography, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002.
In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal writings and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y. This donation consisted of more than 340 boxes containing her handwritten notes in yellowed notebooks for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, a close friend of hers, and various correspondence from admirers and fellow artists, including her publisher Robert Loomis. In 2011, Angelou acted as a consultant for the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., and took issue with a quote by King that appeared on the memorial, asserting that “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant jerk,”. The phrase was eventually removed.
In 2013, at the age of 85, Angelou published her seventh autobiography in her series, titled Mom & Me & Mom, in which she again focused on her complex relationship with her mother.
Evidence suggests that Angelou was descended in part from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou”s maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, who was emancipated after the Civil War, bore a child by her former master, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father. After Savin was charged with forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the real father, the jury found him not guilty. Lee was then sent to a poorhouse in Clinton County Missouri with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, Angelou”s grandmother. The writer later described Lee as “that poor black girl, physically and mentally wounded.”
The details of Angelou”s life, described in her seven autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles, tend to be inconsistent. Critic Mary Jane Lupton explained, in this regard, that when Angelou spoke of her life, she did so very eloquently but in a casual way and “without a timeline in front of her. ” For example, she was married at least twice, but never clarified the exact number of times she was married for “fear of appearing frivolous”; according to her autobiographies and as written by Gillespie, she married Tosh Angelos in 1951, Paul du Feu in 1973, and also began a relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961, but never formally married the latter. Angelou had a son, Guy, whose birth, the result of a single love experience, was described in Angelou”s first autobiography. She also had a grandson and two great-grandchildren. Angelou”s mother, Vivian Baxter, died in 1991 and her brother Bailey Johnson, Jr. in 2000 after a series of strokes; both were very important figures in her life and in her books. In 1981, her son Guy”s wife disappeared, taking Angelou”s grandson with her. It took four years to find him.
In 2009, gossip site TMZ erroneously reported that Angelou had been hospitalized in Los Angeles when she was actually in St. Louis, Missouri, sparking rumors of her death and, according to Angelou, great concern among her friends and family around the world. In 2013, Angelou told her friend Oprah Winfrey that she had taken some courses at Unity Church that had enriched her spiritually.She never had a college degree, but according to Gillespie, Angelou preferred to be called “Dr. Angelou” by people outside her family and circle of friends.
The author owned two houses in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a “stately mansion.” In her homes she collected multiple books and pieces of art. Younge recounted, for example, that the Harlem house contained several African tapestries and a collection of paintings, including a watercolor by Rosa Parks and a work by the famous artist Faith Ringgold entitled “Maya”s Quilt Of Life.”
Angelou was able to develop an important facet as a hostess, relying on her extraordinary cooking skills, “from haute cuisine to home cooking. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that for many of the citizens of Winston-Salem it was very important “to get an invitation to one of Angelou”s Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas tree-decorating parties or birthday parties, as they were among the most coveted events in the city. The New York Times, in describing the history of the author”s New York residency, also noted that Angelou regularly hosted elaborate New Year”s Eve parties. In fact, she combined her skills as a cook and writer in her 2004 cookbook Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, which featured 73 recipes, many of which she learned from her grandmother and mother. Her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart, was published in 2010. In this one, she took into account aspects such as weight loss and portion control.
Beginning with her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou used the same “writing ritual” for many years. She would wake up early in the morning and check into a hotel, where the staff was instructed to remove paintings and photographs from the walls. Angelou would write in yellowed notebooks while lying in bed. At her disposal she was to have a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget”s Thesaurus thesaurus, and the Bible. Angelou would leave the room in the afternoon. On average she would write 10 to 12 pages of material each day, which she would edit in the evening, leaving herself with only three or four pages. She would go through this process to “enthrall” herself and, as she stated in a 1989 interview for the British Broadcasting Corporation, “mitigate the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang. ” At the time of writing, she imagined herself back in traumatic situations in her life, such as when she was raped as a child, an event recounted in Caged Bird that she decided to include in order to “tell the human truth” about her life. She did not consider this process to be cathartic but, rather, found relief in “telling the truth.”
Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014, and was found by her nurse and caregiver. Despite being in delicate health and having cancelled her participation in various events, she was working on a new book, an autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders. During her funeral service at Wake Forest University, her son, Guy Johnson, referred to the strength of his mother, who despite suffering continuous pain due to the after-effects of her dancing career and respiratory failures, wrote four books during the last ten years of her life. Johnson stated that his mother “left this mortal plane without losing sharpness, insight and understanding.”
Numerous artists and world leaders showed their grief at Angelou”s passing, including former President Bill Clinton, and then-President Barack Obama. Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation said Angelou”s “legacy is one that all authors and readers around the world can look up to and aspire to.” In the week following the writer”s death, her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, reached the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com”s bestseller list.
On May 29, 2014, Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, which Angelou had attended for 30 years, held a public funeral to honor her. Also, a private funeral service was held on June 7 at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. The service was broadcast live on local stations in the Winston-Salem area.
In 2015 the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating Maya Angelou with Joan Walsh Anglund”s phrase: “A bird doesn”t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” The stamp mistakenly attributes this phrase to Angelou, even though it is from Anglund”s book of poems A Cup of Sun (1967).
Angelou wrote a total of seven autobiographies, making her work inextricably linked to her life, a story of survival despite being a victim of racial segregation, sexism and multiple traumatic experiences. According to scholar Mary Jane Lupton, Angelou”s third autobiography, Singin” and Swingin” and Gettin” Merry Like Christmas, marked the first time a recognized African American author wrote a third volume about her life. Her books “reach across time and space,” from Arkansas to Africa and back to the United States and chronicle from the beginning of World War II to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Angelou published her seventh autobiography Mom & Me & Mom in 2013, at the age of 85. Critics have tended to judge Angelou”s autobiographies “in comparison to the first” with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, then, being the most acclaimed. Angelou also wrote five collections of essays, which have been described as “books of wisdom” and “homilies coupled with autobiographical texts” by writer Hilton Als. Uniquely, Angelou had the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House; he retired in 2011 and has been considered “one of the hall of fame editors.” Angelou had this to say about her long relationship with Loomis: “We have a relationship that is famous among publicists.”
Angelou”s extensive career also included, as we have seen in previous sections, poetry, plays, scripts for television shows and films, directing, acting, and giving speeches. She was a prolific writer; her 1971 book of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ”fore I Diiie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite his poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during his presidential inauguration in 1993. Also noteworthy was the 2008 publication of Letter to my Daughter, which could be described as her spiritual testament. Angelou had had only one son but, throughout her life, so many women had asked her for advice that she considered them, in a way, her “daughters”.
Angelou”s successful acting career includes roles in multiple plays, films and television shows, including her appearance in the 1977 television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay for Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first screenplay written by an African-American woman to go into production. Angelou was also the first African-American woman to direct a film, Down in the Delta, in 1998.
When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoir author, one of the first African American women to be able to discuss her personal life publicly. According to scholar Hilton Als, until then black female authors had been marginalized in such a way that it was impossible for them to present themselves as the central character in the literature they wrote. Scholar John McWhorter, meanwhile, considered Angelou”s works “extensions” of “tolerant writing.” He considered Angelou a champion of black culture. Writer Julian Mayfield, in turn, referred to Caged Bird as “a work of art that eludes description,” and asserted that Angelou”s autobiographies set a precedent not only for other women writers of color, but also for African American autobiographies as a whole. Hilton Als asserted that Caged Bird marked one of the first times that a female autobiographer of color was able to “write about black culture from the inside, without apology or defensiveness.” Throughout the process of writing her autobiography, Angelou became a recognized figure and highly respected spokesperson for African Americans and women in general. She became, “without question…America”s most visible autobiographer of color,” and “a major voice of autobiography of that era.” Writer Gary Younge stated, “Probably to a greater extent than almost any living author, Angelou”s life literally is her work.”
According to Hilton Als, Caged Bird helped foster writing among African American women in the 1970s, not so much for its originality as for its “resonance with the prevailing Zeitgeist” at the end of the civil rights movement in the United States. Als also asserted that Angelou”s writings were more concerned with self-revelation than with politics or feminism and that they encouraged other female authors to “open themselves unashamedly to the eyes of the world.” Angelou”s critic, Joanne M. Braxton, claimed that Caged Bird was “probably the most aesthetically pleasing autobiography” of its era. Moreover, Angelou”s poetry has influenced the modern hip-hop music community, including artists such as Kanye West, Common, Tupac Shakur and Nicki Minaj.
Angelou”s books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, leading to censorship in classrooms and removal from many school libraries. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to the content of her books on the grounds that they include episodes of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence. Some have been critical of explicit sexual scenes, some use of language, and irreverent religious depictions. Caged Bird ranked third on the American Library Association”s (ALA) list of the “100 Most Controversial Books” from 1990 to 2000 and sixth on the list from 2000 to 2009.
Maya Angelou garnered recognition from multiple universities, literary organizations, government agencies, etc., including 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. She served on two presidential committees and was the recipient of a Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. In addition, Angelou was awarded over fifty honorary degrees.
Uses in education
Angelou”s autobiographies have been used for teacher training because of their narrative and multicultural content. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has trained teachers to be able to “talk about race” with the help of the autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. According to Glazier, Angelou”s use of subtlety, self-mockery, humor and irony has left readers of these texts confused about what Angelou omitted and how they should respond to the facts described. Angelou”s descriptions of her experiences with racism have forced white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own “privileged status.” Glazier believes that critics have focused on finding Angelou”s place in the African American autobiographical genre and her literary techniques, while readers tend to react to her writing with “surprise, particularly when they have certain expectations about the autobiographical genre.”
In her 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, educator Daniel Challener analyzes the events of Caged Bird to illustrate resilience in children. Challener argued that Angelou”s books have provided a “useful framework” to be able to explore the obstacles that many children like Maya have faced in their lives and how their communities have helped them overcome them. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has used Caged Bird, for his part, to complement certain scientific theories and research on some of the issues associated with child development, such as the concepts of self-discovery, self-esteem, ego resilience, inferiority, consequences of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friend relationships, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty and identity formation in adolescence. In his opinion, Caged Bird is “a highly effective tool” for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.
Angelou is primarily known for her seven autobiographies, but she was also a prolific poet. As we have seen above, she was considered “the most lauded of poets of color,” and her poems have been described as “anthems for African Americans.” Angelou began studying poetry at a young age, and used poetry and literature to help her cope with the fact that she was raped as a child, as described in Caged Bird. According to scholar Yasmin Y. DeGout, literature also influenced Angelou in terms of the poet and writer she became, especially “the liberating discourse that would develop into her own poetic cannon.”
Many critics consider Angelou”s autobiographies to be more important than her poetry. Although all of her books have been best-sellers, her poetry is not considered as outstanding as her prose and has been little studied. Her poems were more interesting when she recited them in her extraordinary voice and many critics have thus emphasized the public aspect of her poetry. Angelou”s lack of critical acclaim as a poet has been attributed as much to the public nature of many of her poems and the popular success the author enjoyed as to the critics” preference for written poetry. Professor and author Zofia Burr has opposed this view of Angelou”s critics, condemning them for missing Angelou”s fundamental purpose in her writing: “to be representational rather than individual, authoritative rather than confessional.”
Angelou”s use of some novel-like techniques in her writing, such as dialogue, characterization, theme development, setting, plot and language, led to her books being classified as autobiographical fiction. The author made, in fact, a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of autobiographies, criticizing and expanding the genre. Scholar Mary Jane Lupton believes, however, that Angelou”s autobiographies fit the standard structure of the genre: they are written by a single author, are in chronological order, and contain elements of character, technique, and theme. Angelou acknowledged that there were fictional aspects to her books, and Lupton agrees, stating that the writer tended to “dissent from common truthful notions of autobiographies,” and this equates her to the conventions of most autobiographies written by African Americans during the period of the abolition of slavery in the United States, when, as Lupton and African American scholar Crispin Sartwell assert, truth was censored because of the need to protect oneself. Scholar Lyman B. Hagen, for his part, places Angelou”s works within the long tradition of African American autobiographies, but asserts that she created a unique form of autobiographical interpretation.d
According to African American scholar Pierre A. Walker, the challenge facing the history of African American literature was that its authors had had to confirm their status as literature proper before they could fulfill their political goals. Thus, Angelou”s publisher, Robert Loomis, was able to get Angelou to write Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered a “work of art.” Angelou acknowledged that she followed the slave tradition of storytelling, “speaking in the first person singular, referring to the first person plural, always writing I, but referring to ”we.”” Scholar John McWhorter, meanwhile, described Angelou”s books as “extensions that champion African-American culture and fight against negative stereotypes.” According to McWhorter, Angelou structured her books in a way that seemed to him more childlike than adult in order to defend black culture. McWhorter sees Angelou as she represents herself in her autobiographies, “as a kind of stand-in figure for black Americans in difficult times.” Indeed, to McWhorter, the writer”s works seem old-fashioned, but he acknowledges that “she helped lead the way for contemporary African-American authors, who can now enjoy the luxury of simply being individuals, no longer representatives of a race, simply themselves.” Lynn Z. Bloom, for her part, has compared Angelou”s works to the writings of Frederick Douglass, asserting that both serve the same purpose: to describe African American culture and interpret it in a broader way for the public.
According to scholar Sondra O”Neale, Angelou”s poetry can be included in the African-American oral tradition, while her prose “follows classical techniques in non-poetic Eastern forms.” O”Neale states that Angelou avoided making use of “monolithic black language,” and achieved this through direct dialogue, which she describes as a “more expected ghetto expressiveness.” McWhorter, on the other hand, believes that the language used by Angelou in her autobiographies and the people depicted in them comes across as unrealistic, leading to a separation between her and her readers. McWhorter states, in this regard, “I have never read autobiographical writings where I had such a hard time understanding how the subject speaks, or who the subject really is.” Thus, for example, she believes that key figures in Angelou”s books, such as herself, her son Guy, and her mother Vivian, do not speak as one would expect and that their speech has been “cleaned up” for readers. Guy, for example, represents the young black boy, while Vivian represents an idealized mother figure, and the stiff language they both use, as well as the language of Angelou”s texts in general, is intended to demonstrate that blacks are capable of speaking in proper standard English.
McWhorter acknowledges that much of the reason for Angelou”s style was the “comprehensive” nature of her writing. When Angelou wrote Caged Bird in the late 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted characteristics of literature at the time was “organic unity,” so one of the writer”s goals was to create a book that met that criterion. The events that take place in her books were devised as a series of short stories, but their order did not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they were placed in such a way as to emphasize the themes of the books, which include racism, identity, family and travel.
English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has stated that “Angelou”s poetry and prose are similar”. Both rely on her “direct voice,” which alternates regular rhythms with syncopated patterns and uses comparisons and metaphors. According to Hagen, Angelou”s works were influenced by mainstream literature and the oral tradition of the African-American community. For example, Angelou references more than 100 literary characters throughout her books and poetry. In addition, she used elements of blues music, including personal testimony about life”s hardships, ironic subtlety and the use of metaphors, rhythms and intonations. Angelou, rather than relying on plot, used historical and personal events to shape her books.
As the face of legal tender
For his dedication to society and for his fervent social activism, he will appear at the end of 2022 on the 25-cent coin. …