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Maya Angelou: A Woman Of Hope Essay, Research Paper

Chris Morth

Maya Angelou: A Woman of Hope

Marin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, E.B. DuBois and Thrugood Marshall are all names that bring to mind the struggle that Black America has been engaged in since the times of Abraham Lincoln. All of these people were eloquent speakers who had a great influence on the lives of every American. Maya Angelou is one of the few men and women who has had an impact on America as these great black leaders have had. Angelou’s work in the arts and for civil rights is unmatched. Her unique style of writing conveys her optimistic expectations and desires for the human race. Because she has fought vigilantly against sexism, racism, and segregation without giving up, she is truly a woman of hope.

Maya Angelou grew up in a small segregated town in the deep south where she has to keep her hopes up in order to survive all the racial hatred in the South. Maya Angelou was originally born Marguerite Johnson in Saint Louis, Missouri on the 4th of April 1928. When Maya was three years old and her brother Bailey was four, their parents sent them to live with their grandmother in the small, rural town of Stamps, Arkansas. Maya’s parents, who were never very happy around each other, “decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and their Father shipped Maya and Bailey home to his mother” (Angelou Caged Bird 6). Maya and Bailey had a porter charged with their welfare and to see them safely to their father’s mother, Mrs. Annie Henderson. On the train ride down to Arkansas, “Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for ‘the poor little motherless darling’ and plied Maya and Bailey with cold fried chicken and potato salad” (Angelou Caged Bird 6). In all her books, Maya continually demonstrates how the African-American community is always trying to help each other out however they can. Bailey and Maya moved in with the Grandma, whom they called Momma, and their uncle at the Store that Momma had owned for the past twenty-five years. The Store “became the lay center of activities in town” (Angelou Caged Bird 7). “On Saturdays, barbers sat their customers in the shade on the porch of the Store, and troubadours on their ceaseless crawlings through the South leaned across its benches and sang their sad songs of The Brazos while they played juice harps and cigar-box guitars” (Angelou Caged Bird 7). The Store was always a busy place that always had something for two little children to do to keep themselves out of trouble. Growing up around the Store was a great experience for Maya, it gave her the chance to spend a lot of time around her family while learning some responsibility that would help her later in life. During her years in Stamps, Maya “met and fell in love with William Shakespeare” (Angelou Caged Bird 14). He was Maya’s “first white love” (Angelou Caged Bird 14). “Although Maya enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, she saved her young and loyal passion for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘Litany at Atlanta’” (Angelou Caged Bird 14). Her early love of these great poets and authors certainly inspired her later works heavily, for good and bad. Over the next nine years, Maya only saw her parents once because her parents lived apart, and in different, distance parts of the country. When Maya was seven years old, her father drove into Stamps with his shiny, gray De Soto. “His bigness shocked Maya” (Angelou Caged Bird 53). She said that her father was “blindingly handsome” and had “shoulders so wide that she thought he’d have trouble getting in the door” (Angelou Caged Bird 53). This was the first time that Maya or Bailey had ever seen their father in person. It was something out of a dream for Maya to meet her father after living her entire life with never knowing quite who he was. Because of the way he dressed, the way he talked and the car he drove, Maya thought “that he was rich and maybe had a castle out in California” (Angelou Caged Bird 53). This was a dream come true for a young girl. She had her father, whom she had not seen since she was a baby, come into town and impress all the people in town. Maya felt like a princess because she loved the “possibility of being compared with him” (Angelou Caged Bird 54). Maya did have one fear about her father in town that was that people would think that because he was so big and handsome that maybe she was not really his daughter. Maya’s father greatly relieved her fears with his announcement that he would be returning to California very soon. Her relief did not last very long. The next day her father asked her “Does Daddy’s baby want to got to California with Daddy?” (Angelou Caged Bird 54). This would have been an easy decision for Maya if her brother Bailey had not told their father that he wanted to get with him immediately. Maya did not want to go with her father, but she felt obligated to go because he was her father. Besides, she could not just let her best friend leave her like that. On the car ride to California, Maya’s father told them that they were going to make a stop in St. Louis to see their mother. At hearing this Maya blurted out “I want to go back to Stamps.” Her father constantly asked her why she did not want to see her “mother dear,” but Maya would not open her mouth or say anything about it. During the car ride to St. Louis, Maya attempted to talk to her brother in pig latin. She asked her brother if he thought that they were being kidnapped by some man who just claimed to be their father. Little did Maya realize that this “language” she thought her brother had created for their personal use was known by her father too. At hearing this, Maya’s father broke out in laughter and replied in pig latin to her “Oohay oodaway antway ootay idkay appnay ooyay? Ooday ooyay inkthay ooyay are indlay ergbay ildrenchay?” (Angelou Caged Bird 58). Maya called this “another case of the trickiness of adults where children were concerned” (Angelou Bird 58). Maya and her brother arrived in St. Louis only to find that their mother was not currently home. Maya’s Grandmother Baxter received them in her home. Maya waited on the edge of her seat in an overfurnished living room anxiously anticipating the arrival of a woman who they had not seen in more than five years. When Maya’s mother walked in, there were two expressions that came to her mind, “struck dumb” and “love at first sight.” Her “mother’s beauty literally assailed Maya. Her red lips split to show even white teeth and her fresh-butter color looked see-through clean. Her smile widened her mouth beyond her cheeks beyond her ears and seemingly through the walls to the street outside” (Angelou Caged Bird 58). Maya immediately thought she knew why her mother had sent her away in the first place, “She was too beautiful to have children” (Angelou Caged Bird 58). Both Maya and her brother fell instantly and forever in love with their mother who they had never really known. A few days after arriving in St. Louis, Maya’s father left for California without Bailey or Maya. She “was neither glad nor sorry. He was a stranger, and if he chose to leave her with a stranger, it was all of one piece” (Angelou Caged Bird 59). The Baxter’s marriage was not quite a traditional marriage. Grandmother Baxter, a white woman, had met Grandfather Baxter, a black man, while working at Homer G. Phillips Hospital and married him. Inter-racial marriages were not as common in the nineteen-thirties as they are now. Moving from a small, rural town in Arkansas to a large, busy city in Missouri can be quite a shock for a little girl who does not know what to suspect. St. Louis introduced her to “thin-sliced ham, jelly beans and peanuts mixed, lettuce on sandwich bread, Victrolas and family loyalty” (Angelou Caged Bird 60). “In Arkansas, where they cured their own meat, Maya and her brother ate half-inch slabs of ham for breakfast, but in St. Louis they bought the paper-thin slices in a strange-smelling German store and ate them in sandwiches” (Angelou Caged Bird 61). Maya’s mother enrolled both Bailey and Maya at Toussaint L’Ouverture Grammar School where the teachers immediately skipped them a grade because the teachers felt that the “country children would make their classmates feel inferior” (Angelou Caged Bird 61). The reason that Maya and Bailey were so far ahead of the other children is that back in Stamps their teachers forced them to learn their multiplication tables and learned to read because there was not much else to do in town. Maya and Bailey lived with their grandparents for their first six months in St. Louis before their mother moved them in with her. While Maya was living with her mother, a very important event occurred in her life. Maya’s mother was living with and dating a Mr. Freeman who was a large man whose entire day focused around Maya’s mother. He would just sit in his chair all afternoon, waiting for Maya’s mother to come home. Mr. Freeman would suddenly come alive when she walked in the room. One day, while waiting for Maya’s mother to come home, Mr. Freeman called Maya over to him. He then proceeded to rape her without her really realizing that what he was doing was so hideously wrong. This happened twice more while Maya lived with her mother before her mom discovered that he had raped her. When Mr. Freeman was put on trial, he was found guilty. The judge sentenced him to only one year and one day of jail time which he never served because his lawyer got him out that afternoon. Mr. Freeman turned up dead in an alley the next day. His killer has never been found. Believing that during the trial she had lied because she couldn’t bring herself to say that Mr. Freeman had actually raped her, Maya decided that she had “sold herself to the Devil and that there could be no escape. The only thing she could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey” (Angelou Caged Bird 84). At first her family thought that her refusal to talk was just some kind of post-rape or post-hospital affliction. But when the doctor pronounced her totally well again and she still refused to speak, her family members became enraged with her and would beat her whenever they felt offended by her silence. Her family could no longer stand her refusal to talk that they sent her back to Stamps to live with her grandmother once more. After the business of living in a big city, “the barrenness of Stamps was exactly what Maya wanted, without will or consciousness” (Angelou Caged Bird 86). Maya and Bailey became the main attraction in Stamps for their first few months in town before the novelty wore off. If it was not for a Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who was an aristocrat of Black Stamps, Maya might have never became the national celebrity and African-American spokesperson that she is today. Mrs. Flowers “appealed to Maya because she was like the people Maya had never met personally. Like women in English novels who walked the moors with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets” (Angelou Caged Bird 92). Maya liked Mrs. Flowers so much because Mrs. Flowers was the person that Maya wanted to be. One of the first things that Mrs. Flowers told Maya was that “It takes the human voice to infuse words with the shades of deeper meaning” (Angelou Caged Bird 94). Maya memorized this advice and still tells it to everyone at her seminars to this day. While sitting in Mrs. Flowers’ living room one day, eating cookies and sipping lemonade, Mrs. Flowers began the first of what she later called “Maya’s lessons in life.”

Mrs. Flowers’ teachings to Maya were these:

She said that Maya must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged Maya to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations. (Angelou Caged Bird 97)

“When Maya finished the cookies, Mrs. Flowers brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. Maya had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to her standards as a romantic novel. Mrs. Flowers opened the first page and Maya heard poetry for the first time in her life” (Angelou Caged Bird 97). The way that the beautiful words sounded to Maya being spoken aloud by Mrs. Flowers was hypnotically beautiful to Maya. While Maya was in her dream like trance, Mrs. Flowers asked “How do you like that?”. For the first time since the trial, Maya spoke to someone besides Bailey. All she could bring herself to say was “Yes, ma’am.” It may not seem like much, but it was a huge step in Maya coming back to reality. Mrs. Flowers then told Maya to “take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite.” Maya was in too much awe of Mrs. Flowers to refuse. It was Mrs. Flowers who brought Maya out of her cocoon and got her believing in herself once again. The entire world owes homage to Mrs. Bertha Flowers, for without her, Maya Angelou may have never come to the world’s spotlight and influenced the many people that she did. When Maya was ten years old, she became the employee of a Mrs. Viola Cullinan. Mrs. Cullinan “was a plump woman who lived in a three-bedroom house somewhere behind the post office” (Angelou Caged Bird 102). “She was singularly unattractive until she smiled, and then the lines around her eyes and mouth which made her look perpetually dirty disappeared, and her face looked like the mask of an impish elf” (Angelou Caged Bird 102). Mrs. Cullinan was a fairly wealthy white woman who lived in Stamps. Maya worked in the kitchen with Miss Glory, “who was a descendant of slaves that had worked for the Cullinans for years” (Angelou Caged Bird 102). One day while Maya was serving Mrs. Cullinan and one of her snobby friends lunch, Mrs. Cullinan decided that calling Maya by her real name, Marguerite, took too long. So Mrs. Cullinan suddenly had the idea to start calling her Mary for her own convenience. Because being “called out of one’s name” (Angelou Caged Bird 106) is one of the few things that all people fear and hate, Maya was enraged when this woman was so bold to think that she could just rename Maya on a whim. Because Maya couldn’t just quit, she and Bailey plotted how she could get herself fired. When Maya described the contents of Mrs. Cullinan’s favorite china cabinet, Bailey got the idea that if Maya were to break some of Mrs. Cullinan’s favorite dishware that she would fire Maya. So, the next day, while Maya was in the kitchen, she picked up Mrs. Cullinan’s favorite serving tray and dropped it on the floor. Mrs. Cullinan heard this and ran into the kitchen screaming “MARY!!!” Maya then picked up the “casserole and two of the green glass cups” and as Mrs. Cullinan waddled into the room “let them fall to the tiled floor” (Angelou Caged Bird 107). Mrs. Cullinan fell to the floor, looked at her broken china and cried “Oh, Momma. Oh, dear Gawd. It’s Momma’s china from Virginia. Oh, Momma, I sorry” (Angelou Caged Bird 107). Miss Glory ran into the room and just stood motionless, unable to speak. Mrs. Cullinan peered at Maya and screamed “That clumsy nigger! Clumsy little black nigger!” (Angelou Caged Bird 107). Mrs. Cullinan grabbed a piece of shattered glass and “threw the wedge of broken plate at Maya” (Angelou Caged Bird 108). Fortunately for Maya, because she was so hysterical, she missed Maya completely but the shard hit Miss Glory above the right ear. Maya left immediately after the incident and never returned again. The last really important event that occurred during Maya’s childhood was her graduation from the Lafayette County Training School. Maya and all the other children were lined up, waiting to receive their diplomas. Maya described her response when she was called up to the podium like this:

My name had lost its ring of familiarity and I had to be nudged to go and receive my diploma. All my preparations had fled. I neither marched up to the stage like a conquering Amazon, nor did I look in the audience for Bailey’s nod of approval. Marguerite Johnson, I heard the name again, my honors were read, there were noises in the audience of appreciation, and I took my place on the stage as rehearsed. (Angelou Caged Bird 177)

Still in a daze-like trance, Maya’s classmates went up to the microphone and gave speeches and read inspirational excerpts from famous works of literature. Maya woke out of her reverie when the class valedictorian took center stage and began to sing James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”:

“Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let is resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on till victory is won

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears have been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.” (Angelou Caged Bird 178-179)

“While the echoes of the song shivered in the air, Henry Reed bowed his head, said ‘Thank you,’ and returned to his place in the line” (Angelou Caged Bird 179). The tears that flowed freely from the audience were not “wiped away in shame” (Angelou Caged Bird 179). The singing of the “Black National Anthem” really moved the entire assembly to unabashed crying. So ends the childhood of Maya Angelou. Her ability to keep hope even against tremendous pressure from outside forces gave her the ability to survive a time of racial hatred in the deep south.

During her constant struggles against sexist and racial hatred, Maya Angelou has experienced more significant events in her life than most people can hope to encounter in ten-fold lifetimes. After her graduation from Lafayette County Training School, Maya moved to San Francisco, California with her mother. During her years in a San Francisco area High school, she became impregnated and gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson, at the age of 16. She was an unwed mother who had to work many odd jobs as a cook and a waitress just to make ends meet. Over the next few years Maya jumped from job to job, but always kept her love of the arts sacred to herself. In the nineteen-fifties, she started her career as a night club performer which helped launch her pursuit of becoming a singer and a dancer. After her career performing in night clubs came to an end, she became the first black woman to conduct in San Francisco. In 1971, she became the first black woman to have an original screenplay produced when her work “Georgia, Georgia” was filmed. She later married a South African freedom fighter and moved to Cairo, Egypt with him. During her five years spent in Egypt, she became the editor of The Arab Observer, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East. She then moved to Ghana where she could teach young Africans and be the feature editor of the African Review. Years later, she is quoted as saying “that being black, female, non-Muslim, non-Arab, six foot tall, and American made for some interesting experiences during her stay in Africa” (Biography 1). After her divorce, she moved back to the United States where she was appointed “Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (Biography 1). In 1976, she was “appointed to the Bicentennial Commission by President Gerald Ford” (Biography 1). A few years later, she was assigned to “the National Commission on the Observances of International Women’s Year by President Jimmy Carter” (Biography 1). In addition, what is even more amazing is that Maya Angelou is fluent in five languages, French, English, Spanish, Italian and West African Fanti. In 1993, at President Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou read her great poem On the Pulse of Morning. Maya was nominated for an Emmy Award for her extraordinary acting in the TV mini-series “Roots” and in “Georgia.” She has published ten NY Times best selling books and several volumes of poetry. Although she spends most of her time lecturing around the United States, she is currently employed as a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Her life experiences should infuse everyone with hope that the world can be a place without hatred, without fear, if everyone can just see past appearances and gaze into another’s soul.

Maya Angelou believes that spirituality is the key to living a life full of love and hope. In an interview with Ken Kelley, a freelance writer for national magazines, Maya was asked how spirituality fits into the American way of life. She replied:

Somehow, we have come to the erroneous belief that we are all but flesh, blood, and bones, and that’s all. So we direct our values to material things. We become what writer Beah Richards calls “exiled to things”: If we have three cars rather than two, we’ll live a little longer. If we have four more titles, we’ll live longer still. And, especially, if we have more money than the next guy, we’ll live longer than he. It’s so sad.

There is something more-the spirit, or the soul. I think that that quality encourages our courtesy and care and our minds. And mercy, and identity.”(Kelley 2)

This belief that the amount of material possessions that one owns is the scale of how you’re measured against others really is very sad. When asked what she meant when she asks “Why do black children hope?” in one of her poems, she answers:

“Those black children are the bravest, without knowing it, representatives of us all. The black kids, the poor white kids, Spanish-speaking kids, and Asian kids in the U.S.-in the face of everything to the contrary, they still bop and bump, shout and go to school somehow. And dare not only to love somebody else, and even to accept love in return, but dare to love themselves-that’s what is most amazing. Their optimism gives me hope.” (Kelley 2)

Maya believes that “the spirit of youthful optimism will let today’s kids rise above the violence on the streets and the oblique and direct negligence” (Kelley 2). When asked what she means about “rising above the oblique and direct negligence,” she says:

“When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one-its’ the first blow in a suicidal movement. I see the neglect in cities around the country, in poor white children in West Virginia and Virginia and Kentucky-in the big cities, too, for that matter. I see the neglect of Native American children in the concentration camps called reservations.”

“The powerful say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ But they don’t really believe that those living on denuded reservations, or on strip-mined hills, or in ghettos that are destinations for drugs from Colombia and Iraq, can somehow pull themselves up. What they’re really saying is, ‘If you can, do, but if you can’t forget it.’ It’s the most pernicious of all acts of segregation, because it is so subtle.” (Kelley 2-3)

To escape the harsh realities of today’s violence filled world, Maya suggest that young people wishing to elude the violence should read. “Read everybody, all the time” (Kelley 3). “Read Dickens, read Kenzaburo Oe for his almost painful insight, read James Baldwin for his unqualified love and beautiful writing” (Kelley 8). When asked what young people should do if they can’t read period she said that illiteracy must be stamped out. She preaches that “the elimination of illiteracy is as serious an issue to our history as the abolition of slavery” (Kelley 3). It is clear that Maya’s view on spirituality is that everyone should try and live a rich, fulfilling life filled with hope and the yearning to learn more.

Maya’s view on religion is one of hope that people will accept God with pride. Angelou believes that “the most delicious piece of knowledge is that we are all children of God” (Kelley 3). She finds it “mind-boggling, that this ‘it’ created everything and that I am a child of ‘it’” (Kelley 3). To her, “it means that I am connected to every thing and every body” (Kelley 3). But Maya also recognizes the down side to her “connection”:

“That’s all delicious and wonderful-until I’m forced to realize that the bigot, the brute, the batterer is also a child of ‘It.’ Now, he may not know it, but I’m obliged to know that he is. I have to. That is my contract.” (Kelley 3)

The way that each individual recognizes God also enthralls her:

“What fascinates me is the varying ways we approach God. And shape God and paint God, make a statue of God. It amazes me. Once I went to Texas to a conference called ‘Facing Evil.’ At one point, some fellow from Texas got up and said, ‘I really have seen evil, I have felt its force. I went to Germany and I went into the concentration camps.’ I stood and said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that we’ve come from all over the world and we’re going to talk nonsense? You had to go to Germany, you here in Texas who refused Mexican-Americans a chance to vote, you who don’t want them to even live next to you, you who have your own history of slavery-you had to go to Germany? I don’t want to here it.”

(Kelley 3-4)

This powerful outburst from Maya at this conference displays her fearlessness to stand up against opinions and ideas that conflict with her own beliefs. Maya believes that if everyone accepts the fact of evil, then everyone also must accept the fact of good. Many people only think of evil, and don’t believe that there is good in the world. But according to Maya, if one accepts one, one must accept the other. Angelou has faith that if the entire race can accept the good in the world gracefully, then the world will be a much better place.

Showing her faith in humanity, Angelou thinks that there has been a lot of progress in the area of Civil Rights since the Civil War. Ken Kelley asked Maya if “a generation after the Civil Rights Act, how much progress has America made in the fight against racial discrimination?” (3). Angelou says that there has been a lot of progress and that it’s very dangerous not to say so. It’s dangerous not to say so “because if we say so, we tell young people, implicitly or explicitly, that there can be no change” (Kelley 3). If young people heard this, then they would compute:

“You mean the life and death and work of Malcolm X and Martin King, the Kennedys, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, the life and struggle of Rosa Parks– they did all that and nothing has changed? Well then, what the hell am I doing? There’s no point for me to do anything.” (Kelley 3)

Maya believes that the truth is “a lot has changed-for the good, and it’s gonna keep getting better, according to how we put our courage forward, and thrust our hearts forth” (Kelley 3). Her hopeful view on Civil Rights should inspire everyone to not lose faith, and to just keep on working.

President Clinton, at whose election Maya Angelou read her inspirational poem On the Pulse of Morning, is the focal point of Maya’s hopeful view on today’s world politics. Maya thinks of President Clinton as an “innocent abroad.” When asked if she thought that President Clinton is still the same person as he was when she read at his inauguration she says that “Clinton is the same man,” “he has paid dearly for some lessons” (Kelley 1). When asked what she thinks Clinton should do over the next two years, Maya replies:

“He’ll have to take more chances. I think Clinton, after getting into office and into Washington, was shocked at being bludgeoned. So he spent time trying to be all things to all people–one way guaranteed not to be successful or respected in a lion’s den. You can’t just play around with all those big cats–you’ve got to take somebody on.” (Kelley 1)

Maya believes that if the nation can continue in it’s current direction, then there is hope for everyone.

In her lifetime, Maya Angelou has written many inspirational books, including her heart-warming autobiographies. Her best-selling book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first book in Maya’s series of autobiographies. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings talks about her experiences as a child in the segregated south, and her experiences in St. Louis and San Francisco with her mother. Gather Together in My Name is the continuation of Maya’s life story. It deals with her troubles and struggles as a single mother and how she had to support herself and a young child. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas is the third volume of her life story. Maya describes her unsuccessful marriage and her continual efforts to support her family and the rise of her speculative career. The Heart of a Women covers her life through the late 1950s and early 1960s when she travels to Cairo, Egypt with her son Guy. “After her short marriage dissolves and her son leaves to go to college, Maya finds herself not unhappily alone” (Hunt 2). The fifth and final volume of Angelou’s autobiography is All God’s

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