Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou

The groundbreaking of the African Burial Ground, October 5, 2007
Born April 4, 1928 (1928-04-04) (age 81)
Saint Louis, Missouri
Occupation Poet, dancer, film producer, television producer, playwright, film director, author, actress
Nationality United States
Official website

Maya Angelou (IPA: /ˈmaɪə ˈændʒəloʊ/;[1] born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928)[2] is an American autobiographer and poet. Having been called "America's most visible black female autobiographer" by scholar Joanne M. Braxton, she is best known for her series of six autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adulthood experiences.[3] The first, best-known, and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), focuses on the first seventeen years of her life, brought her international recognition, and was nominated for a National Book Award.

Angelou has had a long and varied career, holding jobs such as fry cook, dancer, actress, journalist, educator, television producer, and film director. She was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s. She was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou has been highly honored for her body of work, including being awarded over 30 honorary degrees and the nomination of a Pulitzer Prize for her 1971 volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie.[4] Since the 1990s, she has had a busy career on the lecture circuit, making about 80 appearances a year. Since 1991, Angelou has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as recipient of the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. In 1993, she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. In 1995, she was recognized for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.

With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was heralded as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She became recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques often result in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction, but they are better characterized as autobiographies.[5] Angelou has made a deliberate attempt through her work to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Although her books have been used extensively in the classroom, they have also been challenged or banned in schools and libraries. Her books and poetry have covered themes such as identity, family, and racism.


Early years

Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928 to Bailey Johnson, a doorman and navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a real estate agent, trained surgical nurse, and later a merchant marine. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., called her "Maya", derived from his nickname for her, "my-a-sister".[6] The details of Angelou's life, although described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles, tend to be inconsistent. Her biographer, Mary Jane Lupton, when speaking about these inconsistencies, has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her".[7]

In 2008, Angelou's family history was profiled on the PBS series African American Lives 2. A DNA test showed that she was descended from the Mende people of West Africa.[8] The program's research focused on Angelou's maternal great-grandmother, Mary Lee, emancipated after the Civil War. Before the program's investigation, little was known about Lee's background because she prohibited anyone from knowing about it. Lee became pregnant by her former owner, a white man named John Savin, who forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father. A grand jury indicted Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County, Missouri poorhouse with her daughter, who became Angelou's grandmother, Marguerite Baxter. Angelou's reaction after learning this information was, "That poor little black girl, physically and mentally bruised."[9]

William Shakespeare, whom Angelou "met and fell in love with" as a child.[10]

Angelou's first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recounts the first 17 years of her life. When Angelou was three and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended, and their father sent them alone by train to live with his mother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas.[11] Henderson prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments".[12] Four years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning"[13] and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis. At age eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for one day. Four days after his release, he was found kicked to death, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute, believing, as she has stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone..."[14] She remained nearly mute for five years.[15]

Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again. Angelou credited Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a teacher and friend of Angelou's family, with helping her speak again. Mrs. Flowers introduced her to classical literature. The authors included Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.[16] When Angelou was 13, she and her brother returned to live with her mother in San Francisco, California. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School and studied dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.[17] Three weeks after completing school, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet.[18] At the end of Angelou's third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, her son announced that he wanted to be called "Guy Johnson" and trained his friends and family to accept it.[19]

Angelou's second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19. As Lupton stated, this book "depicts a single mother's slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime."[20] Angelou made her living working in various jobs, including prostitution and as the madame of a brothel. In those years, Angelou went through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without the benefit of job training or advanced education. Lupton stated, "Nevertheless, she was able to survive through trial and error, while at the same time defining herself in terms of being a black woman".[19] Angelou learned how to perform professionally for live audiences, and exhibited a natural dancing ability and talent.

Adulthood and early career

Angelou won a scholarship to study dance with Trinidadian choreographer Pearl Primus and married Greek sailor Tosh Angelos in 1952; the marriage ended in divorce after one-and-a-half years. Although it is not known exactly how many times Angelou has been married—she has never clarified, "for fear of sounding frivolous", [21] but it has been at least three times.[22]

Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Up to that point, she called herself "Rita Johnson", but changed her name to "Maya Angelou" when her managers at San Francisco nightclub The Purple Onion strongly suggested that she adopt a "more theatrical" name that captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances.[12] She toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess in 1954–1955, studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Ailey on television variety shows, and recorded her first record album, Miss Calypso, in 1957. Also during that period, she co-created a dance team, "Al and Rita", with choreographer Alvin Ailey, who combined elements of modern dance, ballet, and West African tribal dancing.[23] Angelou's third autobiography, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, covered her early dancing and singing career. One of the themes of this book was the conflict she felt between her desire to be a good mother and a successful performer, a situation "very familiar to mothers with careers".[24]

In the late 1950s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met a number of important African American authors, including her friend and mentor James Baldwin. After hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak for the first time in 1960, she was inspired to join the Civil Rights movement. She organized several benefits for him, and he named her Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the early 1960s, Angelou briefly lived with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; she moved with him and her son Guy to Cairo, Egypt, where she became an associate editor at the weekly newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962, her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Ghana. She became an assistant administrator and instructor at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, was a feature editor for The African Review, and acted and wrote plays.[17][25] In her travels Angelou learned French, Spanish, and Fante.[25]

Angelou became close friends with Malcolm X in Ghana and returned to the US in 1964 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of African American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. In 1968, King asked her to organize a march, but he too was assassinated, on her birthday (April 4). Instead of celebrating her birthday, she sent flowers to King's widow, Coretta Scott King, until King's death in 2006.[26][27] Inspired by a meeting with her friend James Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and Feiffer's wife Judy, Angelou dealt with her grief by writing her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.[28]

Later career

In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a British-born carpenter and remodeler, and moved with him and her son to Sonoma, California. The years to follow were some of Angelou's most productive years as a writer and poet. She composed music for movies, wrote articles, short stories, and poetry for several magazines, continued to write autobiographies, produced plays, lectured at universities throughout the country, and served on various committees. She appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots in 1977, wrote for television, and composed songs for Roberta Flack.[29] Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first original script by a black woman to be produced.[30] It was during this time, in the late '70s, that Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's friend and mentor.[31][26]

Angelou divorced de Feu and returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.[29] In 1993, she recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.[32] Also in 1993, Angelou's poems were featured in the Janet Jackson/John Singleton film Poetic Justice, in which Angelou also made a brief appearance.[33]

Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993

Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit. In 1993, she made approximately 80 speaking appearances.[32] When speaking, she tended to sit on a stool and would entertain the audience for approximately one hour, reciting poems by memory and following a flexible outline.[34] Her most common speaking engagements would occur on college campuses; the events tended to be sold out far in advance.[35] In 1997, over 2,000 tickets were sold when she spoke at the Woman's Foundation in San Francisco. By the early 2000s, Angelou traveled to her speaking engagements and book tour stops by tour bus. She "gave up flying, unless it is really vital ... not because she was afraid, but because she was fed up with the hassle of celebrity".[21] In 2008, she charged approximately US$43,000 per engagement.[36]

Starting in March 1999, a poem called "Clothes" that was attributed to Angelou circulated on the Internet. The poem makes a number of false and defamatory claims labeling various clothing manufacturers (such as FUBU, Timberland, and Eckō lines) as racists and/or members of the KKK. Angelou has denied on her website that she wrote the poem.[37][38] In 2002, Angelou lent her name and writings to a line of products from the Hallmark Greeting Card Company.[39] Also in 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Maya Angelou on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[40]

In 2006, Angelou became a radio talk show host for the first time, hosting a weekly show for XM Satellite Radio's Oprah & Friends channel.[41] Also in 2006, singer Nancy Wilson set Angelou's poem "My Life Has Turned to Blue" to music in the title track of her CD, "Turned to Blue".[42] In 2007, she became the first African-American woman and living poet to be featured in the Poetry for Young People series of books from Sterling Publishing.[43]

In 1998, Angelou went on her first cruise, a gift of her friend Winfrey, in celebration of her 70th birthday. Over 150 people were in attendance.[27] In April 2008, Angelou had three parties to celebrate her 80th birthday. A "pricey soiree" that included a red carpet and "a guest list of celebrities" was held in Atlanta, Georgia to benefit a YMCA youth center named after her. There was also a city-wide event celebrated by Winston-Salem, North Carolina,[44] and Winfrey hosted "an extravagant 80th birthday celebration" at Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. She was serenaded by Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Jessye Norman, and Ashford & Simpson.[34] While attending a Unity Church service in Miami, Florida in 2005, Angelou decided to "go into a kind of religious school and study" during her 80th year.[45]

Angelou became involved in US presidential politics in 2008 by placing her public support behind Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, despite her good friend Winfrey's public support of Barack Obama.[26] Prior to the January Democratic primary in South Carolina, the Clinton campaign ran radio ads featuring Angelou's endorsement of Clinton.[46]The ads were part of the Clinton campaign's effort to rally support in the black community.[47] African Americans apparently ignored the endorsement as Obama won the South Carolina primary; finishing 29 points ahead of Clinton and taking 80% of the black vote.[48] When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Obama.[49] When Obama won the election and became the first African American president of the United States, she stated, "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism".[50]

Angelou's work

Although Angelou wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, without the intention of writing a series, [17] she went on to write five additional volumes. They are distinct in style and narration. In addition, the volumes "stretch over time and place",[51] from Arkansas to Africa and back to the US. They take place from the beginnings of World War II to King's assassination.[51] Like Caged Bird, the events in these books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but do not follow a strict chronology. Later books in the series include Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002). Critics have tended to judge Angelou's subsequent autobiographies "in light of the first",[17] with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou has used the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, who has been called "one of publishing's hall of fame editors."[52] Angelou has said regarding Loomis: "We have a relationship that's kind of famous among publishers".[53]

All my work, my life, everything is about survival. All my work is meant to say, "You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated". --Maya Angelou[54]

Angelou's long and extensive career also includes poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting, and public speaking. She is a prolific writer of poetry; her volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize,[55] and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" during his inauguration in 1993.[32]

Angelou has had a successful career as a playwright and actress. In 1977, she appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a black woman to be produced.[30] In 2008, Angelou wrote poetry for and narrated the M. K. Asante, Jr. film The Black Candle.

Reception and legacy


When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description",[56] has insisted that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for the genre of autobiography as a whole.[56] Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou had become recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women.[17] It made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer".[3]

Author Hilton Als has insisted that although Caged Bird was an important contribution to the increase of black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributed its success less to its originality than with "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist",[56] or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Als also insisted that Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, has freed many other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world".[56] Angelou biographer Joanne M. Braxton has insisted that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era.[3]

Critical reception

Angelou's books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, causing their removal from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to Caged Bird's depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence.[57] Some have been critical of the book's sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions.[58] Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.[59] It was fifth on the ALA's list of the ten most challenged books of the 21st century (2000–2005),[60] and was one of the ten books most frequently banned from high school and junior high school libraries and classrooms.[61]

The week after Angelou recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300-600%. Bantam Books had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and published the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase.[62]

Uses in education

Maya Angelou's plaque at San Francisco's Jack Kerouac Alley.

Angelou's autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teacher education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has used I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name to train teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms. Due to Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, readers of Angelou's autobiographies wonder what she "left out" and are unsure about how to respond to the events Angelou describes. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism force white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography".[63]

Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener insisted that Angelou's book provides a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya face and how a community helps these children succeed as Angelou did.[64] Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He found the book a "highly effective" tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.[65]

Style and genre

Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction, but Angelou has characterized them as autobiographies.[66] As Lauret has stated, Angelou made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre.[67] Lupton has insisted that all of Angelou's autobiographies conform to the genre's standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme.[68] Angelou has also recognized that there are fictional aspects to her books. Lupton has stated that Angelou has tended to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth",[69] which has paralleled the conventions of much of African American autobiography written during the abolitionist period of US history, when the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection.[69][70] Angelou has acknowledged that she has followed the slave narrative tradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'".[17]

The challenge for much of African American literature is that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature before it could accomplish its political goals, which is why Robert Loomis, Angelou's editor, was able to dare her into writing Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered "high art".[71] When Angelou wrote Caged Bird at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature at the time was "organic unity", and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criteria.[71] The events in her books are episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements do not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they are placed to emphasize the themes of her books.[71] English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has asserted that "Angelou's poetry and prose are similar". They both rely on her "direct voice", which alternates steady rhythms with syncopated patterns and makes use of similes and metaphors (i.e., the caged bird).[72]

I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.

Maya Angelou[73]

Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has used the same "writing ritual"[74] for many years. She wakes at five in the morning and checks into a hotel room, where the staff has been instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She writes on legal pads while laying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible, and leaves by the early afternoon. She averages 10-12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to three or four pages in the evening.[75] Angelou goes through this process to "enchant" herself, and as she has said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, "relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang."[14] She places herself back in the time she is writing about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to "tell the human truth"[14] about her life. Angelou has stated that she plays cards in order to get that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I’m in it—ha! It’s so delicious!"[14] She does not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in "telling the truth".[14]

Themes in Angelou's autobiographies


When I try to describe myself to God I say, "Lord, remember me? Black? Female? Six-foot tall? The writer?" And I almost always get God's attention.

Maya Angelou, 2008.[76]

As feminist scholar Maria Lauret has indicated, Angelou and other female writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s used the autobiography to reimagine ways of writing about women's lives and identities in a male-dominated society. Lauret has made a connection between Angelou's autobiographies, which Lauret called "fictions of subjectivity" and "feminist first-person narratives", and fictional first-person narratives (such as The Women's Room by Marilyn French and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing) written during the same period. Both genres employ the narrator as protagonist and "rely upon the illusion of presence in their mode of signification".[77] Lauret has also stated that "the formation of female cultural identity"[78] has been woven into Angelou's narratives. Angelou has presented herself as a role model for African American women by reconstructing the Black woman's image throughout her autobiographies, and has used her many roles, incarnations, and identities to "signify multiple layers of oppression and personal history".[78] Lauret has viewed Angelou's themes of the individual's strength and ability to overcome throughout Angelou's autobiographies as well.[78]

Author Hilton Els has insisted that while Angelou's original goal was to "tell the truth about the lives of black women",[56] her goal evolved in her later volumes to document the ups and downs of her own life. Els has stated that Angelou's autobiographies have the same structure: they give a historical overview of the places she was living in at the time and how she coped within the context of a larger white society, as well as the ways that her story played out within that context. Critic Selwyn Cudjoe agreed with Els, especially in regards to Angelou's second volume, Gather Together in My Name. He stated that Angelou is still concerned with the questions of what it means to be a black female in the US, but she focuses upon herself at a certain point in history. As Cudjoe has said, "It is almost as though the incidents in the text were simply 'gathered together' under the name of Maya Angelou".[56]


One of the most important themes in Angelou's autobiographies are "kinship concerns",[79] from the character-defining experience of her parents' abandonment to her relationships with her son, husbands, and lovers throughout all of her books.[79] African American literature scholar Dolly McPherson has insisted that Angelou's concept of family throughout her books must be understood in the light of the way in which she and her older brother were displaced by their parents at the beginning of Caged Bird.[80] Motherhood is a "prevailing theme"[17] in all of Angelou's autobiographies, specifically her experiences as a single mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter.[17] Lupton believes that Angelou's plot construction and character development were influenced by this mother/child motif found in the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Jessie Fauset.[81]

The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough.

Maya Angelou, Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now (1994)

Scholar Mary Burgher has stated that black women autobiographers like Angelou have debunked the stereotypes of African American mothers of "breeder and matriarch" and have presented them as having "a creative and personally fulfilling role".[82]

Lupton has stated that the one unifying theme that connects all of Angelou's autobiographies is what she has called "the mother-child pattern".[83] Angelou describes throughout her books her connection of mother and child—with herself and her son Guy, with herself and her own mother, and with herself and her grandmother. Other themes include the absent and/or substitute father, the use of food as a psychosexual symbol, and the use of staring or gazing for dramatic and symbolic effect. They are also related through literary elements such as the ambivalent autobiographical voice, the flexibility of structure to illustrate the disjointedness of life, and Angelou's commentary on character and theme.[83]


Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage described in the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, "Sympathy", as a "central image" throughout all of her autobiographies.[84][18] Like elements within a prison narrative, the caged bird represents Angelou's confinement resulting from racism and oppression.[85] This metaphor also invokes the "supposed contradiction of the bird singing in the midst of its struggle".[18] Critic Pierre A. Walker has placed Angelou's autobiographies in the African American literature tradition of political protest written in the years following the American Civil Rights movement. Walker has emphasized that the unity of Angelou's autobiographies serves to underscore one of Angelou's central themes: the injustice of racism and how to fight it.[71] Walker has also stated that Angelou's biographies, beginning with Caged Bird, consist of "a sequence of lessons about resisting racist oppression".[71] This sequence leads Angelou, as the protagonist, from "helpless rage and indignation to forms of subtle resistance, and finally to outright and active protest"[71] throughout all six of her autobiographies.

Honors and awards

Angelou is one of the most honored writers of her generation. She has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors include a National Book Award nomination for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie,[86] a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums.[87][30] In 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Bantam Books, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.[88] She has served on two presidential committees,[89] and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000[90] and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.[91] Musician Ben Harper has honored Angelou with his song "I'll Rise", which includes words from her poem, "And Still I Rise."[92] She has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees.[93]


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  2. ^ "Maya Angelou". Retrieved on 2007-10-25. 
  3. ^ a b c Braxton, p. 4
  4. ^ Moyer, p.297
  5. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 32
  6. ^ Kellaway, Kate (1993-01-23). "Poet for the new America". The Guardian.,,102370,00.html. Retrieved on 2007-10-15. 
  7. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 2
  8. ^ Henry L. Gates, Jr. (host). (2008). African American lives 2: The past is another country (Part 4) [Documentary]. PBS. Retrieved on 2008-03-15.
  9. ^ Henry L. Gates, Jr. (host). (2008). African American lives 2: A way out of no way (Part 2) [Documentary]. UPN. Retrieved on 2008-03-15.
  10. ^ Angelou (1969), p. 13
  11. ^ Angelou (1969), p. 6
  12. ^ a b Lupton (1998), p. 4
  13. ^ Angelou (1969), p. 52
  14. ^ a b c d e "Maya Angelou I know why the caged bird sings". BBC World Service Book Club. BBC. October 2005.
  15. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 5
  16. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 15
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h "Maya Angelou". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved on 2007-10-25. 
  18. ^ a b c Long, Richard (2005-11-01). "35 who made a difference: Maya Angelou". Retrieved on 2007-10-25. 
  19. ^ a b Lupton (1998), p. 6
  20. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 120
  21. ^ a b Younge, Gary (2002-05-25). "No surrender". The Guardian.,,720909,00.html. Retrieved on 2007-10-10. 
  22. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 13
  23. ^ Angelou (1993), p. 95
  24. ^ Lupton (1998), p. 7
  25. ^ a b Braxton, p. 3
  26. ^ a b c Minzesheimer, Bob (2008-03-26). "Maya Angelou celebrates her 80 years of pain and joy". USA Today. Retrieved on 2008-05-30. 
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  • Angelou, Maya (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-50789-2
  • Angelou, Maya (1993). Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-22363-2
  • Baisnée, Valérie (1994). Gendered resistance: The autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame and Marguerite Duras. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-0109-7
  • Braxton, Joanne M. (1999). "Symbolic geography and psychic landscapes: A conversation with Maya Angelou". In Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook, Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
  • Lauret, Maria (1994). Liberating literature: Feminist fiction in America. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-4150-6515-1
  • Lupton, Mary Jane (1998). Maya Angelou: A critical companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30325-8
  • Lupton, Mary Jane (1999). "Singing the black mother". In Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook, Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2
  • McPherson, Dolly A. (1990). Order out of chaos: The autobiographical works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. ISBN 0-820411-39-6
  • Moyer, Homer E. (2003). The R.A.T. real-world aptitude test: Preparing yourself for leaving home. Sterling, Virginia: Capital Books. ISBN 1-931868-42-5
  • Sartwell, Crispin. (1998). Act like you know: African-American autobiography and white identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226735-27-3
  • Tate, Claudia (1999). "Maya Angelou". In Maya Angelou's I know why the caged bird sings: A casebook, Joanne M. Braxton, ed. New York: Oxford Press. ISBN 0-1951-1606-2

External links

NAME Angelou, Maya
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Johnson, Marguerite Ann
SHORT DESCRIPTION Poet, dancer, producer, playwright, director, author
DATE OF BIRTH April 4, 1928
PLACE OF BIRTH Saint Louis, Missouri
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