Maya Angelou





Maya Angelou's Works



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 autobiographies.

    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 (119-20).

    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" (7).

    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).


Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

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.
I say,
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

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.
I say,
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

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.
I say,
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.


Persona Imagery Repetition Line Length Anaphora Musicality


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 Pembroke.