American author Maya Angelou has been referred to as “America’s most visible black autobiographer” by Joanne M. Braxton. Born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou had what can only be described as a difficult childhood.
She spent time being moved between her mother and her grandmother’s homes, and was raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was eight years old. The trauma of this event caused the little girl to become mute for almost six years, and she gave birth to a son, Guy, when she was just 16 years old.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s first published volume of poetry, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, includes a work by the same name, which includes the following:
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Her sincerity rings through in this passage, in which she may be referring to events from her own life where she felt that she was in situations where she was not in control of the outcome, or about the more general theme of racism. Anyone reading this poem can relate to the bird who could only sing about its longed-for freedom and relate to this powerful idea.
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie
Maya Angelou’s next body of work was called Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie. Published in 1971, the volume of poetry was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It includes the poem, They Went Home, about the ‘other woman’ who may have had qualities which were attractive to the men who were stepping out on their wives, but who went home nonetheless. The simple words convey the woman’s loneliness at being left time and again.
And Still I Rise
The third book of poetry, called And Still I Rise, was published in 1987. The title poem is an inspiring work about African Americans and the civil rights movement. It is a poem written from Angelou’s heart about struggle and the promise of certainty that nothing and no one will stop the movement for equal rights for people of color.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Maya Angelou’s poems speak of everyday life and situations which readers have experienced or can appreciate because they can picture someone in similar circumstances. Woman Work focuses on the woman’s work which is never done during her lifetime and Momma Welfare Roll tells the story of a woman who is left with the option of taking (not being given) welfare.
Her poem, Men, speaks of a loss of innocence and pain, and survival, though not of healing entirely from trauma. There is wary hopefulness at the end of the poem, but not the kind of hearts and flowers message that all is well and that no scars remain afterward. Instead, it is the putting one foot in front of the other determination of the survivor who doesn’t have a choice but to go on, which is no less sincere than any of Angelou’s other poems. It is the simple honesty of accepting what has happened and moving on as best one can.
Not all of Maya Angelou’s poems focus on the more challenging aspects of being a woman. Her poem, Phenomenal Woman, is nothing less than an anthem for every member of the female gender to hold her head high and appreciate what makes her special. As the poet herself points out,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Maya Angelou’s poetry strikes a chord with readers because of its sincerity and the simplicity of the themes it addresses. She writes about themes which she has seen and experiences and which are important to her. By expansion, they are issues which apply to women, African-Americans, and to all people who are concerned about civil rights and equality (which means all members of the human race).
Her work offers food for thought to people from various backgrounds, and it all comes down to the power and sincerity of her words. Simple words giving rise to not-so-simple ideas which tug at the reader’s heart and make him or her think. That quality is her greatest strength as a writer.
Kimberly is a freelance writer working for online writing company www.writemyessay4me.com which specializes in ‘do my paper assignments’ writing requests in various fields.