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Maya Angelou Essay, Research Paper

Her life was never easy. From the time she was born, Maya Angelou

was subjected to racism, rape, grief and dehumanization. She beared enough

emotional stress in a time frame that most people don’t experience in a

lifetime. Yet she prevailed. She forced herself to become stronger. And in

doing so, she produced writings, which in turn, helped others to become

strong. Her experiences and the lessons learned gave her confidence to be a

teacher, a preacher, and an inspiration to millions. Maya Angelou was

courageous. Based on Angelou?s most prestigious autobiography, I Know Why

The Caged Bird Sings, along with others, certainly reveals the occurring

hardships and misfortunes of her life.

In Maya Angelou?s first published autobiography, I Know Why The

Caged Bird Sings, in 1970, she focuses in on the concept of black skin, and

the emotions and fears that come along with it. Caged Bird begins, it opens

with a symbolic presentation expressing Angelou?s fears as a little girl being

stared at in church by the whites in society who looked down on the people

of colored skin. Further, Jon Zlotnik Schmidt of American Writers

separates this introduction as one of the several, in which Maya Angelou

feels abused because she is a black child, and sees herself as an outcast in

all of society(American Writers IV 2). Throughout Caged Bird, Angelou

remains displaced as being a racist in society. She is deserted and rejected

by her mother, Vivian Baxter(Black Women Writers 5). In several of her

related fantasies, Angelou, as a child imagines her mother lying in a coffin,

dead with no face: ?Since I couldn?t fill in the features I printed

M O T H E R across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm

milk(American Writers 3).? As she grew up with no mother in her life, Maya

Angelou was forced to become a mature adolescent at a young age(American

Writers 5).

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, prevails in moments where

metaphors correspond perfectly to the emotions of Maya Angelou?s

relationship with Annie Henderson, her grandmother, whom Angelou referred

to as Momma Henderson. It is distinctly exemplified when three white girls

perform a handstand pantyless in front of Momma Henderson revealing their

power of white sexuality in front of a superior woman. Momma just hymns a

song showing her granddaughter how to react to the ridicules of the

?powhitetrash.? Steven Butterfeld of American Writers views Momma?s

reaction as a victory in self control(American Writers 3). Angelou exhibits

a similar spirit when describing her visit with Momma to a white dentist who

reveals that he would rather put his hands in a dog?s mouth than a

niggers(Contemporary Literary Criticism 12 12). The appalling parallel

between the ?dog? and the ?nigger? narrates the account of dehumanization

noted by African American writers.

The most powerful emotional response in the first autobiography, I

Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is Angelou?s contrary speech after being

raped by her mothers lover. On page four of American Writers the author

describes the speech in the language used by Angelou describing the tragic


Then there was the pain.

A breaking and

entering when

even the senses are

torn apart.

The act of rape

on a eight-year-old body

is the matter of the needle giving

because the camel can?t.

The child gives,

because the body can,

and the mind of the violator cannot.

This phrase suggests that not a single person could fathom the pain

that the rape caused her because, not only has she experienced sexual

abuse, but she has also received a lifetime of pain prior to this occurrence.

Furthermore, Angelou is expressing how she feels about one who performs

this abominable assault, clarifying the mental disorders which come along

with that person.

Angelou remains insecure about her body for an extreme period of

time. She experienced such damage that it drove her to feel negatively

about her body, forcing her to see dismorphic images of herself. She

believed that her small breasts, large bones and deep voice was indicative of

lesbian tendencies. On page ten of Contemporary Literary Criticism, Sidonie

Ann Smith states that ?Angelou?s self-critical process is incessant, a

driving demon.? She also continues to express that, ?In the black girl?s

experience, there are natural bars that are reinforced with the rusted iron

of social bars, of racial subordination and importance.? In order to verify

this fallacy, that indeed she was not a lesbian, Angelou seduces a beautiful

neighborhood boy and becomes pregnant(Modern American Women Writers

5). At the end of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Angelou is a single

mother, yet still a child, fearful that she might harm her baby because of

her foolishness and irresponsibility of the past.

In Angelou?s second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name,

published in 1974, Maya Angelou is a young mother cynical about her place in

society because of the agony that she received as a child growing up. She

must face obstacles that follow the Second World War(Magill?s Survey of

American Literature 2256). As Gather Together in My Name opens,

Angelou and Clyde, her son, are living in San Francisco, California, with

Angelou?s mother and her new husband. She writes, ?I was seventeen, very

old, embarrassingly young with a son of two months, and I still lived with my

mother and stepfather(Modern American Women Writers 4).?

Angelou?s brother, Bailey, encourages her to go to Los Angeles and try

to live with relatives. Unsuccessfully, Angelou resorts to becoming a

nightclub waitress, where she meets two lesbians. In a dramatic scene,

Angelou and the two women spend the afternoon smoking marijuana, dancing

and drinking. Angelou convinces them to turn their house into a

whorehouse(Modern American Women Writers 5). As the partnership

becomes successful, Angelou is able to buy herself a used Chrysler

convertible. When the two lesbians decide to defy the rules of the house by

stealing money from her, the partnership terminated due to a friendship

clash(American Writers 5). Bloom notes on page four in Modern American

Women Writers that in Gather Together, ?Angelou?s bold headstrong

self-assurance and confidence lead her to ?bluff? her way into dangerous

situations.? Bloom continues that, ?Angelou?s comic-lyric narrative prevents

her autobiographical works from becoming a confessional.? According to

Annie Gottlieb on page eleven of Contemporary Literary Criticism, ?Gather

Together in My Name, is a little shorter and thinner than its predecessor,

telling of an episodic, wondering and searching period in Maya Angelou?s life,

it lacks the density of childhood.? She also goes on to state that it is more

condensed in a way that conveys a world of emotion, where it more like

poetry. Lynn Sukenick on page twelve of Contemporary Literary Criticism

goes on to say that in Gather Together, ?Maya Angelou?s insistence on taking

full responsibility for her own life, her frank and humorous examination of

her self, will challenge many a reader to be as honest under easier


The climax of Gather Together in My Name, occurs when an

unexpected compassionate boyfriend, Troubador Martin, takes Angelou, who

is now smoking a profuse amount of marijuana, on a tour of the underworld of

heroin addiction. Troubador makes her watch as he shoots up. ?Rich yellow

pus flowed out and down his arm to the wrist,? illustrates Angelou?s horrid

description of the scene. Angelou?s refusal to do hard drugs marked the end

of her irresponcibility and the beginning of the safeguard to her son?s

survival(Black Women Writers 14).

Singin? and Swingin? and Gettin? Merry Like Christmas, is Angelou?s

next installment of her life. It is considered by many critics to be more of a

memoir rather than an autobiography. It covers five years of Angelou?s life,

ranging from age twenty-two to twenty- seven(Modern American Women

Writers 4). In this, Angelou expresses her confused feelings about her

mother Vivian Baxter, while she is temporarily separated from her son,

ending her marriage with Tosh Angelos and coping with the loss of Annie


Much of Angelou?s struggle in this third and incredibly complex

autobiography, concerns her role as a mother versus a social role as a

committed actress, where she feels it is necessary to leave her son for a

period of time. As she decides to go to Europe to perform in Porgy and Bess,

Angelou gains cognizance in that, if she leaves her son with her mother, she

will be repeating a pattern that her mother forced upon her when she was a

child(American Writers 6)

June Jordan of Contemporary Literary Criticism, explains to readers

that Singin? and Swingin? is at times a delightful reading whereas, at others,

times is not at all(Page 13). ?The unabashed, positive energies and the happy

resourcefulness of this woman compel your respect, and certainly you wish

her well as she hurtles from week to week, place to place, trial to victory,?

adds Jordan.

Mindfully hidden in this autobiography is the absence of Momma

Henderson, who in previous autobiographies, is a comfort and influence to

Angelou?s actions. The account of her death possibly, is the most powerful

emotional demonstration of her autobiographies(Magill?s Survey of American

Literature 2253). To Angelou, the African American spirituals in this story

are, ?sweeter than sugar. I wanted to keep my mouth full of

them…?(American Writers 7). This figure can be looked at as the negative

images of the trifling mother in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Gather Together in My Name and Singin? and Swingin? are what lead

into The Heart of a Woman, where she recounts seven years of her life

(1957-1963) and her active participation with the civil rights movement as

well as the women?s movement(Modern American Women Writers 4).

In this story, it is the period of the early civil rights marches, of

Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is also a period when Maya

Angelou, according to author of Twentieth Century American Literature,

?Tries her wings and learns that she can fly,? of a brief marriage to a

freedom fighter. It is also a period when her son grows into manhood(Page


This story looks back on the times that Maya Angelou faced bringing

up her black male child, where so many barriers and obstacles stood in the

way of him maturing into adulthood(Twentieth Century American Literature

204). Angelou in addition, shows her readers the hazards of raising a black

child by a lonesome woman. Maya Angelou,? Shows how one woman succeeds

in skirting these dangers and comes out safely on the other side

(Twentieth Century American Literature 204).?

Now in her thirties, the main character of The Heart of a Woman is

searching for a place where she is comfortable with herself. Now, as she is

trying to lead a life on a houseboat in San Francisco, Angelou is entertaining

the legendary Billie Holiday just a few months before the singer?s

death(American Writers 8). One of the most memorable pieces of the

narrative is Angelou?s four day friendship with the moody image of Billie


Certainly, Maya Angelou has undergone a tremendous amount of

lifetime experiences, whether they have been ups or downs she has gone

through it all. Numerous experiences in which were negative have given

Angelou a prayer by allowing herself to write her negativity in such a way

that a reader can feel. Maya Angelou, as a remarkably talented writer and

autobiographer, has succeeded in life despite her hardships and

misfortunes. Her successes have resulted from these, which she so

beautifully indicates in her autobiographies.

Bowden, Jane A. ?Maya Angelou.? Contemporary Authors. Vol.

65-68. Detroit, MI. Gale Research Co. 1977. pg. 28

Bryfonsk, Dedria and Gerald, Ed. ?Maya Angelou.? Contemporary

Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Detroit, MI. Gale Research Co.

1980. pgs. 9-14

Evans, Mari. ?Maya Angelou.? Black Women Writers 1950-1980.

Garden City, NY. Anchor Books. 1983. pgs. 3-20

?Maya Angelou.? Magill?s Survey of American Literature. Vol 7.

New York, NY. Marshall Cadevish Corp. 1994. pgs. 2251-2259

Litz, Walton and Weigel, Molly. ?Maya Angelou.? American

Writers IV. New York, NY. Charles Scribner & Sons. 1996.

Showalter, Elaine and Litz, Walton and Bachler, Lea. ?Maya

Angelou.? Modern American Women Writers. New York, NY.

Charles Scribner & Sons. 1991. pgs. 1-7.

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