Rising Above Becoming A Victim: An Analysis Of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is a prominent and articulate American black author, poet, actress, singer, dancer, playwright, director and producer. Angelou’s best-selling autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings earned her national acclaim. According to American novelist James Baldwin, Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings “Liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity”. Angelou uses vivid language to create mental images of her tumultuous childhood growing up in Stamps, Arkansas that would become the inspiration for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The analysis of Maya Angelou’s childhood and the strong themes in her literary works reveals how she rose above a life exposed to the adversities of sexism and racism. This theme is exemplified in her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in addition to several pieces of her poetry.

Angelou’s first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details Angelou’s childhood while she lived in St. Louis, Missouri, with her mother, and later with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. At the youthful age of eight, while living with her mother Vivian Baxter, Baxter’s boyfriend raped Angelou. After Baxter was arrested, convicted and ultimately released, he was found dead — he had been beaten to death. Feeling accountable for his death, Angelou refused to speak for five years. It was during those silent years that she fell in love with poetry — she memorized sixty Shakespearean sonnets, Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s works. Angelou believed she had reconstructed her brain during that silent period. As a result, Angelou eventually wrote and published her own poetry that relayed a theme of solace.

Angelou theme of solace is evident in her simplistic dictation of her free verse poem “Alone.” Angelou’s poem relays the message that no matter your financial status, background, or heritage, we all need other human beings to survive in this lonely world. As stated at the end of all five stanzas “That nobody, / But nobody / Can make it out here alone.” The tone of Angelou’s poem is one of sadness and desire. Sadness because she is lonely, but a desire to find someone to love and be loved in return “I came up with one thing / And I don’t believe I’m wrong / That nobody, / But nobody / Can make it here alone” (lines 6-10). She uses long vowels as a way of highlighting specific words: soul, home, loaf, stone, alone, nobody, storm, blow, moan, closely. Throughout the poem Angelou uses dissonance, alliteration, figurative language, and AB, AB rhyme. Angelou’s use of dissonance “Wives run around like banshees” shows the idea that a banshee is loud and no one really desires to be around them--further solidifying the theme of loneliness. Her use of figurative language is most evident with several examples using a stone as the source. Her first use of figurative language is hyperbole “And bread loaf is not stone”, and later both a metaphor and idiom within the same line “They’ve got expensive doctors / To cure their hearts of stone,” (lines 18-19). Her use of AB, AB rhyme is seen in the first stanza “With money they can’t use” (and continued with) “Their children sing the blue. Her unintentional use of racism is mildly seen and makes a short appearance towards the end “The race of man is suffering” (line 30). While there is no supporting documentation to support this hypothesis, there are several references to the New Testament in the Bible “Where water is not thirsty / And bread loaf is not stone “(lines 4-5). Angelou’s reference to water parallels the Bible “but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” and Matthew 4:3 “If you are the Son of God, tell these stone to become bread”. There is a possibility that Angelou had found God, or peace at the time of this poem written in 1975.

The life of an African American while Angelou was growing up was one of segregation, financial despair and hate. As a victim of segregation and racial discrimination, Angelou desired to close the gap for African Americans. According to Representative John Lewis of Georgia, Angelou desired that all people participated in the democratic process. “She didn't like the system of segregation and racial discrimination in the American South and she wanted to do her part in bringing down those signs that said 'White' and 'Colored’”. She began to pave the way for equal rights as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She traveled the nation participating in rallies, protests and fundraisers (Rogers). Angelou attempted to highlight Civil Rights issues, through her poetry, along with the stereotypes that commonly occur discrimination.

Angelou’s poetry is well known for its alliteration, heavy use of short lines and conventional vocabulary. Her poetry addressed “social and political issues relevant to African-Americans and for challenging the validity of traditional American values and myths”. “Harlem Hopscotch,” a fourteen line sonnet, with three rhyming quatrains is one such piece that insinuates the issues of poverty and racism in the province of Harlem, and the thought process from someone struggling. One blatant example of racism and poverty is seen in the second stanza “In the air, now both feet down / Since you black, don’t stick around / Food is gone, the rent is due, / Curse and cry and then jump two” (lines 5-8). Angelou’s “Harlem Hopscotch” uses grammatical errors as evidence of slang “Good things for the ones that’s got” (line 2) and “Everybody for hisself” (line 4), which attempts to show that the person reciting the poem may be uneducated. There is also evidence of alliteration, “one foot down, then hop! Its hot” (line 1) and “both feet flat” (line 18). Angelou’s use of symbolism is subtle, but still evident—while hopscotch is a game played by children, in this poem it is the symbol for trials and tribulations that life can throw at us.

Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” first seen in Cosmopolitan in 1978, details the story of a woman that has chosen to live outside the stereotypes that society expects of women. Cosmopolitan is a popular magazine geared towards women with beauty and fashion trends. Angelou is a phenomenal woman by her own definition, regardless of societal expectations. “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size” (line 2). Angelou shows that she is a phenomenal woman regardless of the fact that she is not thin like a model and we are responsible for determining how to be happy. Angelou’s uses of rhyme, repetition, metaphors, idioms and imagery help convey her theme that women must have confidence or they will become victims of sexism. Her use of imagery ‘hips, steps, lips’ all images that a woman with shapely assets would use to help entice men. Her second stanza reveals that although she does not fit within the confines of a typical thin woman, men are attracted to her confidence. “Men themselves have wondered / What they see in me. / They try so much / But they can’t touch / My inner mystery” (lines 30-34). Her use of repetition is exuded throughout her poem, but becomes concrete in her final stanza “I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That's me” (lines 57-60).

Angelou’s work was sign of hope for those struggling with despair, or facing adversity. As a victim who overcame the adversities of sexism and racism she never lost the sight of her dream. Angelou also realized that adversity had made her the advocate to become a change agent “There is no strength without adversity and no change without courage”. Angelou hand-picked her words to tell a story—a story of loneliness, loss, solace, despair, tragedy, love, hope, peace and freedom. An analysis of her early works detail a life of tragic trials and tribulations and her later works detail tranquility. Although her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details the tragedy she experienced as a young child, it’s almost as if over time Angelou’s work revealed a theme of freedom. Angelou had learned to find happiness inside of the cage. Angelou wrote in her book that 'I speak to the black experience,' she said, 'but I am always talking about the human condition — about what we can endure, dream, fail at and survive”. In one quote she was able to surmise her tragic life and how to rose above the adversity.

Works Cited

  • Angelou, Maya. “Alone.” Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. Random House, 1979.
  • Angelou, Maya. “Harlem Hopscotch.” Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie’ Poems.' Random House, 1971.
  • Angelou, Maya. I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. New York, Random House, 2015.
  • Angelou, Maya. “Phenomenal Woman.” Maya Angelou Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women. Random House, 1994.
  • Angelou, Maya. (DrMayaAngelou). “There is no strength without adversity and no change without courage.” 4 April 2019, 12:00 AM. Tweet.
  • Baldwin, James. Review of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. Random House, 2015.
  • “Maya Angelou.” Black Americans of Achievement: Legacy Edition.” Chelsea House, 2006.
  • 'Maya Angelou.' Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 15, Gale, 1997. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com.db07.linccweb.org/apps/doc/K1606000787/BIC?u=lincclin_ecc&sid=BIC&xid=3d63c2eb. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.
  • 'Maya Angelou.' American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., Gale, 1998.
  • Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com.db07.linccweb.org/apps/doc/K1602000229/BIC?u=lincclin_ecc&sid=BIC&xid=aa78b2e3. Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.
  • Moore, Lucinda. “A Conversation with Maya Angelou at 75.” Smithsonian, vol. 34, no. 1, Apr. 2003, p. 96. EBSCOhost, db07.linccweb.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9360944&site=ehost-live.
  • New International Version. Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com. Accessed 12 April. 2019.
  • Rogers, Alex. “Civil Rights Icon John Lewis: Maya Angelou ‘Inspired An Entire Generation.” Time.Com, May 2014, p. 1. EBSCOhost, db07.linccweb.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=a9h&AN=96333582&site=ehost-live.
16 December 2021
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