Daughter of Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson
She was born Marguerite Johnson; she assumed her professional name while
Married twice: Tosh Angelos (1949-1952) and Paul Du Feu (1973-1980)
One child: Clyde (Guy), born in 1944
St. Louis, Missouri
San Francisco, California
Brooklyn, New York
Los Angeles, California
Maya Angelou's Works
1928: born on April 4,1928, in St.Louis, Missouri
1931: Maya and her brother, Bailey Jr., are sent to live with their
grandmother, Annie ("Momma") Johnson Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas
1935: Maya and her brother go to live with their mother in St. Louis
1936: Maya is raped by her mother's paramour, Mr. Freeman
1937: Maya and Bailey go back to Stamps, Arkansas
1940: Graduates with honors from Lafayette Country Training School
1941: Moves to San Francisco to live with her mother and Daddy Clidell
1942: Attends the California Labor School as a night student
1944: First black female trolley car conductor in San Francisco;
graduates from Mission High School; gives birth to her son, Clyde (Guy)
1949: Marries Tosh Angelos
1952: Marriage to Angelos dissolved
1952: Wins scholarship to study dance with Pearl Primus
1954: First professional performance at the Purple Onion
1954-1955: Tours with U.S. State Department sponsored company
of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
1957: Appears in off-Broadway play, Calypso Heat Wave
1959-1960: Serves as Northern Coordinator, Southern Christian Leadership
1960: Writes, produces, and performs, in collaboration with Godfrey
Cambridge, "Cabaret for Freedom," a musical revue; stars in Genet's The
1961: Travels to London and Africa with Vusumzi Make
1961-1962: Associate editor, Arab Observer (English language
newsweekly), in Cairo, Egypt; dissolves relationship with Make
1963-1966: Assistant administrator of School of Music and Drama,
University of Ghana; employed by Ghanian Broadcast Corp. and Ghanian
Times newspaper, Accra,Ghana; appears in "Mother Courage"
1966: Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles; acts in Jean
1968: Writes and produces a ten-part PBS television series on African
traditions in American life, Black, Blues, Black
1970: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (nominated for National
Book Award); appointed writer in residence, University of Kansas;
Yale University Fellowship
1971: Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie (poetry);
Pulitzer Prize nominee
1972: Georgia, Georgia (screenplay)
1973: Marries Paul Du Feu; makes Broadway debut in Look
Away; nominated for Tony Award for performance
1974: Directs film All Day Long; Gather Together
in My Name; adapts Sophocles "Ajax"
1975: Oh Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit Me Well (poetry);
Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in Italy; honorary degree from
Smith and Mills Colleges; Ladie's Home Journal Woman of the
1976: Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas;
honorary degree from Lawrence University; appointed a Bicentennial
Commissioner by President Ford
1977: "And Still I Rise" (one act musical); plays Kunta Kinte's
grandmother in television mini-series Roots; earns an Emmy
nomination; National Commission on the Observance of International
Women's Year appointment from President Carter
1978: And Still I Rise (poetry)
1979: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (screenplay);
"Sister, Sister" (screenplay)
1980: Marriage to Paul Du Feu dissolved; The Heart of a
1981: Lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies,
Wake Forest University
1983: Honored with Matrix Award given by Women in Communication,
Inc. Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (poetry)
1986: All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
1987: Now Sheba Sings the Song (poetry), with sketches by
Tom Feelings; North Carolina Award for Literature
1988: Appears on Bill Moyers's PBS program "The Face of Evil"
1989: USA Today's list of fifty black role models
1990: I Shall Not Be Moved (poetry); Candace Award
1993: Presents "On the Pulse of the Morning" at President Clinton's
inauguration; Wouldn't Take Nothing for my Journey (memoirs)
1995: David Frost interview; reads "A Brave and Startling Truth"
at 50th Anniversary of United Nations; gives a reading at Million
Man March, Washington, D.C. (Hagen 3-7)
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie (1971)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975)
And Still I Rise (1978)
Poems: Maya Angelou (1986)
Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987)
I Shall Not Be Moved (1990)
"On the Pulse of the Morning" (1993)
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994)
"A Brave and Startling Truth" (1995)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ( 1970)
Gather Together in My Name (1974)
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976)
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
"Why I Moved Back to the South" (1982)
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
"My Grandson, Home at Last" (1986)
Issues and Themes
Maya Angelou was born in 1928 to Vivian and Bailey
Johnson. Maya's parents divorced when she was only three years old.
She and her brother, Bailey, went to live with their grandmother, whom
they called "Momma," in Stamps, Arkansas. In Afro-American Writers
After 1955: Dramatics and Prose Writers, Lynn Bloom says:
"In Stamps Angelou learned what it was like to be a black girl in a world
whose boundaries were set by whites." Bloom goes on to say: "But
she learned, also, that blacks would not only endure, but prevail" (4).
Maya learned from "Momma" "common sense, practicality, and the ability
to control one's own destiny that comes from constant hard work and courage,
'grace under pressure'" (4).
After going back to live with her mother in St.
Louis, Maya was raped by her mother's boyfriend. Shortly after his trial
her rapist was found murdered; Maya felt that she had killed him and for
a while she quit speaking. At the age of sixteen Maya became pregnant
and gave birth to a boy, whom she named Clyde (Guy). Maya's early
life is the subject of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird
Sings (1970). Her life story is continued throughout her other
At such a young age Maya had to deal with many issues
such as her rape and her identity as a black person. At one point
in her life she even worked as a prostitute and madam. Her poetry
"draws heavily on her personal history but employs the points of various
personae" (Britannica Online 9/17/98). Bloom states that "Much of
Angelou's poetry, almost entirely short lyrics, expresses in strong, often
jazzy rhythms, themes common to the life experiences of many American blacks
- discrimination, exploitation, being on welfare." She goes on to
say, "Other poems deal with social issues and problems which, though not
unique to blacks, are explored from a black perspective" (10). Angelou's
poetry covers a wide spectrum of topics. In "Born That Way" the persona
faces incest as well as sexual abuse and prostitution. "Phenomenal
Woman," "Woman Work," and "Seven Women's Blessed Assurance" deal with women's
issues. "A Kind of Love Some Say" is about domestic abuse, and the
poem "To Beat the Child Was Bad Enough" takes on the issue of child abuse.
Poems such as " The Memory," "Ms. Scarlett, Mr. Rhett and other Latter
Day Saints," and "We Saw Beyond Our Seeming" address the institution of
slavery. Other poems address issues such as drug abuse, black pride,
and a variety of other topics.
Maya Angelou's poetry is often short. Line
lengths are often short as well. Lyman B. Hagen states: "Most lines
of her three stanza poems are trimeter; others, particularly those
in unstructured poems, are from two to four syllables long" (119).
Hagen says Angelou's rhythmical awareness was influenced
by the King James Bible, white writers like Edgar Allan Poe and William
Shakespere, black writers such as Langston Hughes, shouting and singing
in African American churches, and childhood songs, chants, and folklore
In Modern American Women Writers Joanne Braxton
states: "Readers of her poetry appreciate its rhythm, lyric imagery, and
realism." She goes on to say that "the people who read Angelou's
work include both critics and lay readers, and she has achieved a measure
of true sainthood in their eyes by transcending brutal racism, sexual abuse,
and poverty to become one of America's most celebrated contemporary writers"
An incident that will forever keep Angelou's poetry
in the mind of Americans is her delivery of a poem that she wrote for President
Clinton's inauguration on January 20, 1993. On an episode of Oprah
Maya Angelou discussed her "crowning moment as a poet" (Hagen 134).
Angelou was only the second poet and first female to deliver a poem at
such an event. Hagen says that Angelou intended for the poem "On the Pulse
of the Morning" to convey a message of unity (134).
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
the swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Men themselves have wondered
what they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can't see.
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Now you understand
just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
the need for my care.
'Cause I'm a woman
Published in And Still I Rise (1978)
The poem is written in free verse
There is no set rhyme scheme
The persona in this poem is a strong, confident woman. Lyman B. Hagen
states, "The woman described is easily matched to the author herself.
Angelou is an imposing woman-- at least six feet tall. She has a
strong personality and a compelling presence as defined in the poem" (126).
Angelou uses imagery to give the reader a sense of what the persona looks
like. She states: "I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's
size." She then lists characteristics to help further the reader's
sense of the persona: "The curl of my lips. . . / It's in the fire
in my eyes. . . / The sun of my smile. . . / The need for my care."
In the second stanza Angelou uses a metaphor: "Then they swarm around me,
/ A hive of honey bees." This refers to the men who have surrounded her
as she enters a room. When reading this I think of Scarlett at the
Twelve Oaks Barbecue in Gone With the Wind.
She uses such imagery so that the proud, confident persona can be better
Maya Angelou uses repetition in this poem to stress certain phrases.
An example of this is "I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman,
/ That's me." Angelou also uses repetitiveness in the structure of
her poem. The persona says that pretty women ask her what her secret
is and she tells them by listing her qualities. She walks into a
room and gathers attention and tells the reader why by listing her qualities.
She says that men even wonder why they are smitten by her and she tells
them by listing her qualities. In the final stanza she tells the reader
that now they should understand and be proud of her as well and again she
lists personal qualities.
Her use of repetiton helps to give the poem a flow and make it seem
more familiar and lyrical.
The line length varies in the poem; as a result some words have more emphasis.
Some examples are "I say," "Phenomenal woman," and "That's me."
The emphasis on certain words helps them to stand out to the reader.
An anaphora is the "repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of
lines " (Canada 9/7/98).
Angelou does this in several places in Phenomenal Woman. An example
is "The span of my hips, / The stride of my step, / The curl of my
lips. . . / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman,"
I believe that she does this in order to create a smooth flow in the work.
Maya Angelou's poem Phenomenal Woman is very lyrical, as are many
of her other poems. This may have been influenced by her career as
a dancer and as a Broadway actress.
Hagen states: "Most of her other poetry could easily be set to music.
It is purposely lyrical. It is designed to elicit stirring emotional
responses. Much of it is meant to show fun with the familiar" (122).
Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou.
New York: Random House, 1994.
Bloom, Lynn Z. "Maya Angelou" in Afro-American Writers After 1955:
Dramatics and Prose Writers. Ed. by Thadious M. Davis and
Trudier Harris. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985, 3-12.
Braxton, Joanne M. "Maya Angelou" in Modern American Women Writers.
Ed. by Elaine Showalter. New York: Scribner's, 1991, 1-8.
"Angelou, Maya" Britannica Online. [17 September 1998].
Canada, Mark. "Walt Whitman." http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/canam/whitman.htm
[7 September 1998].
Hagen, Lyman B. Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of
a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of maya Angelou.
Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1997.
Lupton, Mary Jane. "Maya Angelou" in American Writers: A
Collection of Literary Biographies Ed. by A Walton Litz.
New York: Scribner's, 1997, 1-19.
"Maya Angelou." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?Doc...elevance&config=config_firsthit=off
Written by Kelly Holland Cecil, student, University of North Carolina
at Pembroke, 1998.
Edited by Mark
Canada, Ph.D., professor of English, University of North Carolina at