Examining Maya Angelou’s Life Through Her Poem The Mask

When Maya Angelou wrote “The Mask” it became a successful poem that expressed the emotions of being an African American in a society that shows abhorrence towards this ethnicity. Being raised in a segregated town as an African-American female and facing many prejudices, inspired the theme of people having to hide their true feelings behind a false disguise in Maya Angelou’s “The Mask”. This theme inspired Maya Angelou’s life because it allowed her to be as legendary as she is today, though she’s passed, her legacy lives on. By wearing the “mask” Maya was able to laugh off everything that was wrong in the world and still keep her sanity. It’s not easy trying to brave against society’s brutal actions. But, Maya Angelou is of a different breed, not only was she able to maintain her sanity, she went off and inspired many other people of her background to chase their dreams.

On the fourth of April 1928, in a little town by the name of Stamps, the phenomenal Maya Angelou was born. When Maya was just three years old, she was sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas with her brother. Her grandmother was the only person in their town that had a black-owned general store, which is quite impressive considering they lived in the period of segregation. At the age of eight, Maya’s father showed up on her doorstep and took her and her brother to St.Louis to visit their mother. There, was where she spent the most terrible times of her life. In her mother’s poorly supervised home, Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend who was also, many ages older than her mother. When her mother’s boyfriend was found beaten to death behind a barn, Maya decided she’d never speak again because, she was afraid that her words could kill people and she felt guilty for his death. After this traumatizing event, Maya was silenced for five straight years and during those years she learned to memorize challenging novels such as Shakespeare's writings and Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.

When Maya was 15 years old, her father came back into the picture and took her to live with him for a while. They ended up going to Mexico, since her father was always going out there to get special ingredients for their dinners, leaving Dolores Stocklands, her father’s girlfriend, back home. Dolores was a cruel woman to teenaged Maya because she felt like Maya was trying to take her boyfriend from her. One night, Maya and Dolores got into a terrible fight and she stabbed Maya in the arm with a sewing pin. After this, Maya ran away from home and discovered California, while living in a junkyard for several months. When she was 16 years old, Maya found out she was pregnant and was soon going to give birth to a beautiful boy. Though Maya already deemed herself different from the rest of the children her age, she continued to grow and mold herself in far later years. When Angelou was in her later teen years she became the first black streetcar conductor in a time where that idea wasn’t even thought of. Maya was always pushing the boundaries and it always paid off.

Maya always had a way with words and through everything she went through. According to Priscilla R. Ramsey, author of “Transcendence: The Poetry of Maya Angelou”, “her autobiographies and poetry reveal a vital need to transform the elements of a stultifying and destructive personal, social, political, and historical milieu into a sensual and physical refuge”. From her famous, “The Mask” Angelou writes, in stanza 4, “My life has been one great big joke! A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke. I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke When I think about myself.” This stanza shows the lack of emotion and feeling she has to live with in order to meet society’s expectations, using imagery. A dance that’s walked shows the lack of rhythm she wants to have. A song that’s spoke visualizes the plainness of her life behind this mask. In stanza 4, Angelou writes, “They grow the fruit, but eat the rind”. This line symbolizes black people in society in comparison to the whites, using metaphors. The black people grow the fruit, but they eat the peel of the fruit instead of the actual sweet beneath the peel. Which shows that the slaves built this country but they don't get to reap the benefits. In stanza 5, Angelou writes, “They say, but sugar, it was our submission that made your world go round”. When Angelou says “they say” she was talking about the black people that went through the slavery period. It was their submission- them living life as slaves for over 500 years- that allowed Maya to be where she was that day. African Americans weren’t successful during the enslavement period, they couldn’t even dream of being big.Ignoring the real world allows a person to keep their sanity, this is how African Americans in this time period and before that were able to grow from their gruesome situations.

The universal statement Maya Angelou is trying to make about life is that it’s full of unfairness so, if one can’t beat the world’s injustices, they’ll just have to play pretend and they’ll survive it well enough. In Maya Angelou’s “The Mask”, inspired by “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence, Maya took her own little spin on the retelling of this poem while adding in her own original words from “When I Think About Myself”. This poem defined Angelou as a person, who through all the pain, still finds time to laugh at the world around her. She always had an ironic background of distance toward the world and her bondage to the world loses its literal quality. No matter how much oppression happened in the world, Maya was able to take a step back from her emotional being and find the ‘humorous” take in wrong-doings. It was humorous because, the world shouldn’t be the way that it is. No one should be afraid to walk around their town and fear being harmed though they’ve done nothing wrong at all. 

16 December 2021
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