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Maya Angelou Essay, Research Paper

Maya Angelou?s work has been heavily affected by the era in which she began to write. The fifties and sixties was a tumultuous time for most African-Americans in the US. The civil-rights movement, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, was instrumental in securing legislation, notably the civil-rights acts of 1964 and 1968 and the voting rights act of 1965, prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, schools, employment, and voting for reasons of color, race, religion, or national origin. But all this was gained at a great price, and it was payed with the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the freedom of many saints who sacrificed for the greater cause, and many years of hard work. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and others pushed for desegregation and equal rights in the face of strong white opposition, and it sometimes became violent. Many whites protested integration.

In 1951, Florida NAACP state secretary Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriet were killed Christmas night in a bombing of their house. No arrests were ever made. In 1953, black political leader Lamar D. Smith, 63, was shot to death in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse at Brookhaven, Mississippi, after seeking to qualify blacks to vote. More than 20 people witnessed the shooting, including several blacks, but nobody admitted to having seen anything and no witnesses testified against the three white men charged with the murder. In 1954, black minister George W. Lee was killed gangl style at Belzoni, Mississippi, after a week of terror during which whites have vandalized blacks? property. The blacks had refused to send their children to racially segregated schools, the whites had retaliated by refusing credit to blacks at local stores, and Lee had campaigned for black voting rights. In 1956, Southern congressmen issue a manifesto March 11 pledging to use “all lawful means” to upset the Supreme Court?s 1954 desegregation ruling.

In 1957, Ku Klux Klansmen accused Alabama grocery-chain truck driver Willie Edwards, 25, of having made remarks to a white woman and forced him at pistol point January 23 to jump to his death from a bridge into the Alabama River. His body was found down river in late April. In 1959, Atlanta integrated its buses January 21 but the governor of Georgia asked citizens to continue “voluntary” segregation. In 1963, four black Alabama schoolchildren were killed and 19 people injured September 15 when a bomb exploded at Birmingham?s 16th Street Baptist Church while 200 were attending Sunday services. The deaths provoked racial riots, police dogs were used to attack civil rights demonstrators, and two black schoolboys were killed later the same day. In 1964, an Atlanta restaurateur closed his restaurant rather than submit to federal government orders that he serve blacks as well as whites. His opposition to integration propelled him into the governorship of Georgia in 1967, and when he was unable to succeed himself, he continued as lieutenant governor. He passed out pickax handles on the street in front of his restaurant to partisans who would strike any blacks who try to enter.

This is the world in which Maya Angelou grew up. She was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. In the sixties, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1974, she was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year. In 1993, she wrote and delivered the poem, On the Pulse of the Morning, at the inauguration of President Clinton at his request. She has also written, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. Her most famous performance was probably in Roots on Broadway in 1977, for which she received a Tony award.

Her writing is deeply personal, with short lines and a heavy dependence on rhythym and rhyme. Many critics regard it as overly simplistic and childish. “? at times her addiction to rhyme betrays her to banality.” (CLC 35, 29) She seems most sure of herself when writing about her culture and heritage. “One soon discovers that she is on her surest ground when she ?borrows? various folk idioms and forms and thereby buttresses her poems by evoking aspects of a culture?s written and unwritten heritage.” (CLC 35, 30) She often uses symbols that can also be found in the lyrics to songs that slaves sang in the fields while they worked. In Still I Rise, the theme of rising and flying to freedom flows throughout. This is based on old African folklore of an old medicine man, the only one left in his tribe not taken by the slave ships from native Africa. Now these are no ordinary people, because they have wings. It is also a highly spiritual tribe, and each person in the tribe has a flower planted in a garden and tended by the medicine man. These flowers are supposed to represent hope, and when the tribe becomes slaves, the flowers begin to die and the people lose their wings. The medicine man takes the flowers and replants them in the new world, tending them and making them grow again. With the help of his assistant, he reassures his tribe via secret visits that they will soon be free, but they must retain their hope. When the flowers have grown again and he has enough petals, he makes a special drink and feeds to all the members of his tribe. They grow their wings and fly away, out of the reach of the slave owners. (Abrahams, 245) Angelou reiterates this dream of flying: “Into a daybreak that?s wondrously clear/I rise/ Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,/I am the dream and the hope of the slave./I rise/I rise/I rise.” (Angelou, 164) Also, “Tired now of pedestal existence/For fear of flying/And vertigo, you descend/And step lightly over/My centuries of horror/And take my hand,” (Angelou, 210)

Another symbol frequently used in African folklore and restated in Angelou?s poetry is the drums. A staple in all ancient African rituals, this symbol is a tie to the past. Mentioned in Equality, Angelou uses the continuous beating and unchanging rhythms of the drums to declare that she will not change to be equal “?while my drums beat out the message/and the rhythms never change./?Hear the tempo so compelling,/hear the blood throb in my veins./Yes, my drums are beating nightly,/and the rhythms never change.” (Angelou, 232)

Frequent mentions of her heroes (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Uncle Tom just to name a few) litter her poetry, adding detail to the pictures she paints if one knows the history behind these prominent references. Elegy, for example was dedicated to Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, who she looked up to and admired for their courage and devotion to their race.

Throughout her literature, there is a intrinsic sense of self-affirmation and personal pride in everything from her sexuality, “Does my haughtiness offend you?/? Does my sexiness upset you?/Does it come as a surprise/That I dance like I?ve got diamonds/At the meeting of my thighs?” (Angelou, 163) to her understanding of the world “Lying, thinking/Last night/How to find my soul a home/Where water is not thirsty/And bread loaf is not stone/I came up with one thing/And I don?t believe I?m wrong/ That nobody,/But nobody/Can make it out here alone.” (Angelou, 74)

She exalts her homeland of the South despite her dark past there, from being raped by her mother?s boyfriend when she was eight to becoming an unplanned mother at the age of sixteen with a father she barely knew. “Remember our days, Susannah./? O Atlanta, O deep, and/Once-lost city,” (Angelou, 187)

Although bare and contingent on rhyme and cadence, Angelou?s “warmth, honesty, strength, and ? defiance come through in every word she sets down.” (CLC 35, 29) Ringing with black pride, her poetry conveys the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans during the past forty years.

Abrahams, Roger D. African American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994.

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970.

Gargan, Carol. “Maya Angelou.” 1979. Publisher?s Weekly. p. 87. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 35. p. 30

Gates, Bill. “The Civil Rights Movement.” Microsoft Bookshelf. Version 4.0. CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1995.

“Maya Angelou.” Poetry Exhibits: The Academy of American Poets. Http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=88. 5/26/00.

Ott, Bill. “Maya Angelou.” 1981. Booklist. p. 1. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 35. p. 30

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