In 1969, Maya Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of six volumes of autobiography. The title, taken from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”, captures the complexities of Angelou’s lived experiences of struggle and triumph and articulates the blues aesthetic and humanism that informed her literary career. In “Sympathy”, Dunbar’s speaker declares, “It is not a carol of joy or glee, /But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, /But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –” (lines 18-20). Angelou, a poet like Dunbar, lived within the boundaries of Jim Crow oppression – of race, class, and gender – and wrote poems that conveyed the dignity of the everyday people whose lives, she believed, warranted celebration. As Carol Neubauer observes, “Angelou turns her attention to the lives of black people in America from the time of slavery to the rebellious 1960s. Her themes deal broadly with the painful anguish suffered by blacks forced into submission, with guilt over accepting too much, and with protest and basic survival” (132). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings documents the realities of growing up black, poor, and female in the first half of the twentieth century, and Angelou would return to these themes throughout her literary career.
Marguerite Annie Johnson, Angelou’s birth name, was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her path to authorship was unconventional, and her renown as a writer developed later in her professional career. By the age of forty, Angelou had been a mother, a street car conductor, a wife, a madam, a Creole cook, a dancer, a singer, an actor, a world-traveler, a journalist, a songwriter, and a civil rights worker. However, as Maria K. Mootry Ikerionwu proposes, “The real story of Maya Angelou is the story of a plain, black six foot tall girl, a child of the American south, who has lived triumphantly and is telling us how she ‘got ovah’” (87).
Her childhood was tumultuous. Angelou’s father Bailey Johnson, a World War I veteran originally from Arkansas, and her mother, Vivian Baxter of St. Louis, met in 1924 and married quickly; their first child, Bailey Jr., was born in 1926 and Maya was born two years later. From the beginning, the couple’s relationship was difficult and, despite a move to California to make a better life, the Johnsons’ marriage ended by the time Maya was the age of three. Bailey Jr. and Maya were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their Uncle Willie in Stamps, Arkansas. They lived with Grandmother Henderson, whom Angelou called Momma, for most of their childhood except for a brief period when the children reunited with their mother in St. Louis. However, the reunion turned tragic when her mother’s boyfriend raped her; she was seven years old. The man who raped her was killed, and the young Angelou blamed herself for his death. Her telling, she surmised, had caused his death. Traumatized, Angelou stopped speaking to anyone except her brother and remained mute for five years. Her St. Louis family found her silence intolerable. She writes, “When I refused to be the child they knew and accepted me to be, I was called impudent, my muteness sullenness” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 73).
The children returned to Stamps, a site Angelou described as an exemplar of the Jim Crow South and as a personal refuge. During the five years of her self-imposed silence, Angelou cultivated a love of literature, reading and memorizing the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. Angelou credits Bertha Flowers with exposing her to great literature and teaching her about the power of the spoken word. An excellent student, Angelou graduated with honors in 1940 from Lafayette County Training School in Arkansas. She and Bailey moved again, this time to California where their mother had relocated. Angelou enrolled in George Washington High School in San Francisco and soon earned a scholarship to study drama and dance at California Labor School.
Angelou’s home life remained chaotic, moving between her mother’s home in San Francisco and her father’s home in Los Angeles, and being – at times – homeless. By the age of 17, Angelou was a mother, giving birth to a son, Clyde “Guy” Johnson. In 1945, she graduated from Mission High School in San Francisco. Angelou’s second autobiography Gather Together in My Name (1974) is set in post- WWII America. In this volume, the fiercely independent Angelou explains how she went from working numerous low-wage jobs to support her son to being involved with drugs and prostitution. The trajectory of Angelou’s teenage and young adult years is astounding. One moment, she becomes the first African American woman to work as a cable car conductor in San Francisco, and the next moment financial circumstances compel her to work as a madam and as a prostitute. Gather Together in My Name pushed the boundaries of the genre by positing the character “Maya” as a different type of autobiographical self. Mary Jane Lupton, who describes Angelou’s testimony as a “deviation from proper conduct”, claims, “Not until the civil-rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s did a significant number of writers challenge this elitist notion of life telling” (Maya Angelou, 77).
During the early 1950s, Angelou married Tosh Angelos, a Greek American sailor. The relationship seemingly counteracted the seedy underworld Angelou describes in Gather Together in My Name. The marriage provided balance and stability for Maya and her son Guy. However, the marriage was short-lived. Angelou, a derivative of her husband’s surname Angelos, first used her professional name as a dancer at San Francisco’s famous Purple Onion nightclub.
Angelou’s professional performance career began in the mid-1950s, and in Singin’and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) Angelou describes her evolution from local performer to international entertainer. She toured 22 countries in Europe and Africa as a dancer in a State Department production of the Gershwin folk opera Porgy and Bess; appeared in the off-Broadway revue and feature film Calypso Heat Wave; and recorded her first album, Miss Calypso. Angelou met novelist and co-founder of the Harlem Writers Guild, John Oliver Killens, who encouraged her to relocate to New York City. She did and joined the Harlem Writers Guild in 1959. Authors Sarah Wright, Rosa Guy, and Paule Marshall were members of the guild, and Angelou forged important relationships with established writers that would help her later in her literary career. Lupton’s critique of Angelou’s fourth autobiography, The Heart of a Woman (1981), which covers the years 1957 to 1962, explains, “By taking that title [of the autobiography] from a poem by [Harlem Renaissance writer] Georgia Douglas Johnson, she is including herself among a distinct tradition of women poets and novelists” (Maya Angelou, 123).
In 1961, Angelou played the role of the White Queen in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a production that included actors Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr., and James Earl Jones. She describes her role in the production in The Heart of a Woman and All God’s Children Need Travelin’ Shoes (1986). While in New York, Angelou participated in civil rights activities. She met leaders and activists, including Bayard Rustin, and agreed to serve as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1959-60, but for most of the early 1960s, the height of the Civil Rights Movement in United States, Angelou lived abroad witnessing firsthand the global efforts of Black people to secure their human rights. African nations began to gain independence from European colonial control in the late 1950s. Angelou lived in Cairo, Egypt, with her partner, Vusumzi Make, a South African activist and member of the Pan Africanist Congress, and worked as an editor for The Arab Observer. After her relationship with Make ended, she and her son moved to Ghana, a West African nation leading the independence movement under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. Angelou joined an already established expatriate African American community that included W.E.B. DuBois, St. Claire Drake, and others. In Ghana, Angelou worked for the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation, wrote feature articles for the African Review, freelanced for the Ghanaian Times, and taught music and dance at the University of Ghana. In 1964, she met Malcolm X and decided to return to the United States to help Malcolm X organize his newly formed Organization of African American Unity. Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. Angelou continued to support civil rights, working, instead, to support the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. King, too, was assassinated – on April 4, 1968, Angelou’s birthday. Angelou writes about this tragic period in American history in the final volume of her autobiography, A Song Flung up to Heaven (2002).
Angelou, encouraged by writer and activist James Baldwin and others, embarked upon her literary career amidst the social turmoil of the post-Civil Rights era. I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings became the first best-selling nonfiction by an African American woman, and, from its publication, scholars compared Caged Bird to Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (1945), which had served as the definitive text documenting black childhood in the South. Both autobiographies are set in the rural South and articulate the experience of Jim Crow, oppression, and poverty; nevertheless, Wright’s Mississippi is a bleak landscape devoid of hope, while Angelou’s Arkansas is more complicated. Kenneth Kinnamon writes of the comparison, “It is not that Angelou de-emphasizes the racist assault on Black personality and community; it is just that she shows with respect if not always agreement the defensive and compensatory cultural patterns developed to survive in such an environment. This is Maya Angelou’s response in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to the call of Black Boy” (107). Angelou not only sees the desolation of Stamps, a metonym for the South, but also recognizes Stamps as the site and source of her rejuvenation. Furthermore, she understands the gendered experience of race, writing in the opening of the autobiography, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 3).
Angelou’s next publication, a poetry collection, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971) builds from a similar autobiographical impetus. Although some reviewers like John Alfred Avant labelled the collection “schlock poetry” and attributed its popularity to the success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the collection was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The criticism, especially by male scholars, persisted with Robert Stepto later describing Angelou’s poetry as “woefully thin” and James Finn Cotter finding both Angelou’s and fellow poet Nikki Giovanni’s poetry to be “unfortunate examples of the dangers of success”. Angelou’s early writing career coincides with the prominence of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Her poetry published in the 1970s espouses the sentiments of Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Mari Evans and reflects the politicism and hybridity of form characteristic of the era. Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, for example,contains edgy, streetwise poems that echo the voice of Black power. In “On Working White Liberals”, Angelou’s speaker seemingly rejects the assistance of whites in the struggle for freedom. She writes, “So, I’ll believe in Liberals’ aid for us/ When I see a white man load a Black man’s gun” (lines 11-12). In “No, No, No” Angelou confronts the ugliness of hatred and violence intentionally conflating the Vietnam War, the Middle Passage, sexual violence, racism, poverty, and the hypocrisy of religion and American Democracy. Although Angelou astutely captures and recreates the language of the street, her style, nevertheless, distinguishes her from Baraka and Giovanni. She is more Langston Hughes, in style, than Sanchez. Like Hughes, Angelou writes about the common folk, whom Hughes refers to as the “low-down folks”, painstakingly describes their activities, and recognizes the dignity and art of their lives. In this respect, Angelou is a blues poet in the tradition of Hughes and Sterling Brown. Poems such as “Thirteens” and “Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition” attest to Angelou’s intent to document African American culture as she observed it. In “When I Think About Myself”, the speaker is a sixty-year-old black woman. The poem is a blues poem, not in form, but certainly in ideology. Laughter is a conceit in the poem, an extended metaphor that expresses a blues aesthetic. Laughter, explains Angelou, is cathartic; it is a survival strategy the woman – and by extension African Americans – employs just to get by.
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie launched Angelou’s career as a poet; however, the collection And Still I Rise (1978), which contains two of her signature poems, established her reputation as a literary icon and a voice for African American women. “Still I Rise”, one of Angelou’s signature poems, is about overcoming, a recurring theme of her oeuvre. She uses anaphora and images of rising dust to convey movement and triumph in the poem. The speaker moves from personal narrative to collective consciousness, calling out to ancestors, articulating a shared experience and identification, and declaring “I am the dream and the hope of the/ slave” (lines 47-48). “Phenomenal Woman”, written as a dramatic monologue, celebrates womanhood, specifically black womanhood, not valued in American culture. In this respect, the poem is a feminist statement of self-worth; it is an argument that refutes and rejects the limited definitions of what it means to be a woman. The speaker, reminiscent of early twentieth century blues women who claimed and defined their own sexuality, proposes that she transcends notions of “pretty” or “cute”; instead, she is phenomenal, a word that connotes the power of awe. She can only be accessed through the senses or experiences. Her beauty is not a thought or a fleeting concept. Instead, it is concrete. The speaker points to it: “It’s in the arch of my back,/ The sun of my smile,/ The ride of my breasts,/ The grace of my style” (lines 37-40). The poem was featured in the 1993 film Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur; its inclusion in the film attests to the poem’s cultural importance and to Angelou’s status as the people’s poet.
In addition to her success as an autobiographer and poet, Angelou earned accolades for her writing for theater and television. She wrote the screenplay and music for Georgia, Georgia (1972) and for an adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; the plays The Least of These (1966), And Still I Rise (1976), and The Southern Journey (1985); and screenplay Sister, Sister. She not only wrote for these artistic mediums, but also directed the films All Day Long (1974) and Down on the Delta (1997), and the play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1968), and performed in the play Look Away, the miniseries Roots, and the film How to Make an American Quilt. Angelou was nominated for a Tony for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker in Look Away and for an Emmy for her role as Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Roots. In 1975, Mills College and Smith College were the first of more than fifty honorary degrees conferred upon Angelou for her extensive work in and support of the arts.
In the later stages of her career, Dr. Angelou, as she was known, became more closely associated with commemorative poetry, especially the 1993 poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” she read at the inauguration of President William Jefferson Clinton. Mary Jane Lupton writes, “her theatrical rendering of ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ is, in a sense, a return to African American oral tradition, when slaves like Frederick Douglass stood on platforms in abolitionist meeting halls to register their concerns about the slave system. The ode also echoes the rhetorical grace of the African American sermon…” (17). “On the Pulse of Morning”, which simply begins “A Rock, a River, a Tree” is a call for peace, acceptance, and justice. Through imagery and allusion, Angelou reminds America of its history of intolerance and challenges the nation to realize the aspirations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King urging the audience to “Give birth again / To the Dream” of equality. She also wrote and performed other occasional poems, including “A Brave Startling Truth”, which commemorated the founding of the United Nations. Deemed a national treasure, Angelou received the National Medal of Arts in 2000 under the Clinton administration and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011. In 2013, the National Book Foundation recognized her contributions to the literary community by presenting her with its Literarian Award.
At the time of her death on May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou was the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, a position she had held since 1982. One of her final projects was a collaboration with artists Shawn Rivera and Rocc Starr on a hip-hop and blues inspired album; the album, Caged Bird Sings, was released in November 2014. Caged Bird Sings is a blend of previously recorded and new vocals and includes lyrics from “Harlem Hopscotch”, “Still I Rise”, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me”, and “Ain’t That Bad”, a fitting tribute to Angelou who insisted literature and music saved her.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York:
Random House. 1970.
--- Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die. New York: Random House. 1971.
--- Gather Together in My Name. New York: Random House. 1974.
--- Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry like Christmas. New York: Random House. 1976.
--- And Still I Rise. New York: Random House. 1978.
--- The Heart of a Woman. New York: Random House. 1981.
--- All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. New York: Random House. 1986.
--- A Song Flung up to Heaven. New York: Random House. 2002.
Avant, John Alfred. Review of Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water Before I Diiie. Library Journal 96 (1971): 3329.
Cotter, James Finn. Review of Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by Maya Angelou, The Women and the Men by Nikki Giovanni, and The Peacock Poems by Shirley Williams. America 134.5 (Feb 1976).
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “Sympathy.” Lyrics of the Hearthside. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1899. 40.
Dyson, Cindy, Ed. Maya Angelou (Bloom’s BioCritiques). Chelsea House, 2002.
Ikerionwu, Maria K. Mootry. Review “A Black Woman's StoryThe Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou.” Phylon 44. 1 (1983): 86-87.
Kinnamon, Kenneth. “Call and Response: Intertextuality in Two Autobiographical Works by Richard Wright and Maya Angelou.” Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 2006. 97-108.
Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Neubauer. Carol. “Maya Angelou: Self and a Song of Freedom in the Southern Tradition.” Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Ed. Tonete Bond Inge. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press. 1990. 114-42.
Citation: Williams, Seretha. "Maya Angelou". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 January 2015 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=117, accessed 11 December 2023.]