Essay, Research Paper: Maya Angelou

Literature: World War

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Her life was never easy. From the time she was born, Maya Angelou was subjected
to racism, rape, grief and dehumanization. She beared enough emotional stress in
a time frame that most people don't experience in a lifetime. Yet she prevailed.
She forced herself to become stronger. And in doing so, she produced writings,
which in turn, helped others to become strong. Her experiences and the lessons
learned gave her confidence to be a teacher, a preacher, and an inspiration to
millions. Maya Angelou was courageous. Based on Angelou’s most prestigious
autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, along with others, certainly
reveals the occurring hardships and misfortunes of her life. In Maya Angelou’s
first published autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, in 1970, she
focuses in on the concept of black skin, and the emotions and fears that come
along with it. Caged Bird begins, it opens with a symbolic presentation
expressing Angelou’s fears as a little girl being stared at in church by the
whites in society who looked down on the people of colored skin. Further, Jon
Zlotnik Schmidt of American Writers separates this introduction as one of the
several, in which Maya Angelou feels abused because she is a black child, and
sees herself as an outcast in all of society(American Writers IV 2). Throughout
Caged Bird, Angelou remains displaced as being a racist in society. She is
deserted and rejected by her mother, Vivian Baxter(Black Women Writers 5). In
several of her related fantasies, Angelou, as a child imagines her mother lying
in a coffin, dead with no face: “Since I couldn’t fill in the features I
printed M O T H E R across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm
milk(American Writers 3).” As she grew up with no mother in her life, Maya
Angelou was forced to become a mature adolescent at a young age(American Writers
5). I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, prevails in moments where metaphors
correspond perfectly to the emotions of Maya Angelou’s relationship with Annie
Henderson, her grandmother, whom Angelou referred to as Momma Henderson. It is
distinctly exemplified when three white girls perform a handstand pantyless in
front of Momma Henderson revealing their power of white sexuality in front of a
superior woman. Momma just hymns a song showing her granddaughter how to react
to the ridicules of the “powhitetrash.” Steven Butterfeld of American
Writers views Momma’s reaction as a victory in self control(American Writers
3). Angelou exhibits a similar spirit when describing her visit with Momma to a
white dentist who reveals that he would rather put his hands in a dog’s mouth
than a niggers(Contemporary Literary Criticism 12 12). The appalling parallel
between the “dog” and the “nigger” narrates the account of
dehumanization noted by African American writers. The most powerful emotional
response in the first autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is
Angelou’s contrary speech after being raped by her mothers lover. On page four
of American Writers the author describes the speech in the language used by
Angelou describing the tragic episode: Then there was the pain. A breaking and
entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on a
eight-year-old body is the matter of the needle giving because the camel
can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator
cannot. This phrase suggests that not a single person could fathom the pain that
the rape caused her because, not only has she experienced sexual abuse, but she
has also received a lifetime of pain prior to this occurrence. Furthermore,
Angelou is expressing how she feels about one who performs this abominable
assault, clarifying the mental disorders which come along with that person.
Angelou remains insecure about her body for an extreme period of time. She
experienced such damage that it drove her to feel negatively about her body,
forcing her to see dismorphic images of herself. She believed that her small
breasts, large bones and deep voice was indicative of lesbian tendencies. On
page ten of Contemporary Literary Criticism, Sidonie Ann Smith states that
“Angelou’s self-critical process is incessant, a driving demon.” She also
continues to express that, “In the black girl’s experience, there are
natural bars that are reinforced with the rusted iron of social bars, of racial
subordination and importance.” In order to verify this fallacy, that indeed
she was not a lesbian, Angelou seduces a beautiful neighborhood boy and becomes
pregnant(Modern American Women Writers 5). At the end of I Know Why The Caged
Bird Sings, Angelou is a single mother, yet still a child, fearful that she
might harm her baby because of her foolishness and irresponsibility of the past.
In Angelou’s second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, published in
1974, Maya Angelou is a young mother cynical about her place in society because
of the agony that she received as a child growing up. She must face obstacles
that follow the Second World War(Magill’s Survey of American Literature 2256).
As Gather Together in My Name opens, Angelou and Clyde, her son, are living in
San Francisco, California, with Angelou’s mother and her new husband. She
writes, “I was seventeen, very old, embarrassingly young with a son of two
months, and I still lived with my mother and stepfather(Modern American Women
Writers 4).” Angelou’s brother, Bailey, encourages her to go to Los Angeles
and try to live with relatives. Unsuccessfully, Angelou resorts to becoming a
nightclub waitress, where she meets two lesbians. In a dramatic scene, Angelou
and the two women spend the afternoon smoking marijuana, dancing and drinking.
Angelou convinces them to turn their house into a whorehouse(Modern American
Women Writers 5). As the partnership becomes successful, Angelou is able to buy
herself a used Chrysler convertible. When the two lesbians decide to defy the
rules of the house by stealing money from her, the partnership terminated due to
a friendship clash(American Writers 5). Bloom notes on page four in Modern
American Women Writers that in Gather Together, “Angelou’s bold headstrong
self-assurance and confidence lead her to “bluff” her way into dangerous
situations.” Bloom continues that, “Angelou’s comic-lyric narrative
prevents her autobiographical works from becoming a confessional.” According
to Annie Gottlieb on page eleven of Contemporary Literary Criticism, “Gather
Together in My Name, is a little shorter and thinner than its predecessor,
telling of an episodic, wondering and searching period in Maya Angelou’s life,
it lacks the density of childhood.” She also goes on to state that it is more
condensed in a way that conveys a world of emotion, where it more like poetry.
Lynn Sukenick on page twelve of Contemporary Literary Criticism goes on to say
that in Gather Together, “Maya Angelou’s insistence on taking full
responsibility for her own life, her frank and humorous examination of her self,
will challenge many a reader to be as honest under easier circumstances.” The
climax of Gather Together in My Name, occurs when an unexpected compassionate
boyfriend, Troubador Martin, takes Angelou, who is now smoking a profuse amount
of marijuana, on a tour of the underworld of heroin addiction. Troubador makes
her watch as he shoots up. “Rich yellow pus flowed out and down his arm to the
wrist,” illustrates Angelou’s horrid description of the scene. Angelou’s
refusal to do hard drugs marked the end of her irresponcibility and the
beginning of the safeguard to her son’s survival(Black Women Writers 14).
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, is Angelou’s next
installment of her life. It is considered by many critics to be more of a memoir
rather than an autobiography. It covers five years of Angelou’s life, ranging
from age twenty-two to twenty- seven(Modern American Women Writers 4). In this,
Angelou expresses her confused feelings about her mother Vivian Baxter, while
she is temporarily separated from her son, ending her marriage with Tosh Angelos
and coping with the loss of Annie Henderson. Much of Angelou’s struggle in
this third and incredibly complex autobiography, concerns her role as a mother
versus a social role as a committed actress, where she feels it is necessary to
leave her son for a period of time. As she decides to go to Europe to perform in
Porgy and Bess, Angelou gains cognizance in that, if she leaves her son with her
mother, she will be repeating a pattern that her mother forced upon her when she
was a child(American Writers 6) June Jordan of Contemporary Literary Criticism,
explains to readers that Singin’ and Swingin’ is at times a delightful
reading whereas, at others, times is not at all(Page 13). “The unabashed,
positive energies and the happy resourcefulness of this woman compel your
respect, and certainly you wish her well as she hurtles from week to week, place
to place, trial to victory,” adds Jordan. Mindfully hidden in this
autobiography is the absence of Momma Henderson, who in previous
autobiographies, is a comfort and influence to Angelou’s actions. The account
of her death possibly, is the most powerful emotional demonstration of her
autobiographies(Magill’s Survey of American Literature 2253). To Angelou, the
African American spirituals in this story are, “sweeter than sugar. I wanted
to keep my mouth full of them...”(American Writers 7). This figure can be
looked at as the negative images of the trifling mother in I Know Why The Caged
Bird Sings. Gather Together in My Name and Singin’ and Swingin’ are what
lead into The Heart of a Woman, where she recounts seven years of her life
(1957-1963) and her active participation with the civil rights movement as well
as the women’s movement(Modern American Women Writers 4). In this story, it is
the period of the early civil rights marches, of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. It is also a period when Maya Angelou, according to author of Twentieth
Century American Literature, “Tries her wings and learns that she can fly,”
of a brief marriage to a freedom fighter. It is also a period when her son grows
into manhood(Page 204). This story looks back on the times that Maya Angelou
faced bringing up her black male child, where so many barriers and obstacles
stood in the way of him maturing into adulthood(Twentieth Century American
Literature 204). Angelou in addition, shows her readers the hazards of raising a
black child by a lonesome woman. Maya Angelou,” Shows how one woman succeeds
in skirting these dangers and comes out safely on the other side (Twentieth
Century American Literature 204).” Now in her thirties, the main character of
The Heart of a Woman is searching for a place where she is comfortable with
herself. Now, as she is trying to lead a life on a houseboat in San Francisco,
Angelou is entertaining the legendary Billie Holiday just a few months before
the singer’s death(American Writers 8). One of the most memorable pieces of
the narrative is Angelou’s four day friendship with the moody image of Billie
Holiday. Certainly, Maya Angelou has undergone a tremendous amount of lifetime
experiences, whether they have been ups or downs she has gone through it all.
Numerous experiences in which were negative have given Angelou a prayer by
allowing herself to write her negativity in such a way that a reader can feel.
Maya Angelou, as a remarkably talented writer and autobiographer, has succeeded
in life despite her hardships and misfortunes. Her successes have resulted from
these, which she so beautifully indicates in her autobiographies.

Bowden, Jane A. “Maya Angelou.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 65-68.
Detroit, MI. Gale Research Co. 1977. pg. 28 Bryfonsk, Dedria and Gerald, Ed.
“Maya Angelou.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Detroit, MI. Gale
Research Co. 1980. pgs. 9-14 Evans, Mari. “Maya Angelou.” Black Women
Writers 1950-1980. Garden City, NY. Anchor Books. 1983. pgs. 3-20 “Maya
Angelou.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature. Vol 7. New York, NY.
Marshall Cadevish Corp. 1994. pgs. 2251-2259 Litz, Walton and Weigel, Molly.
“Maya Angelou.” American Writers IV. New York, NY. Charles Scribner &
Sons. 1996. Showalter, Elaine and Litz, Walton and Bachler, Lea. “Maya
Angelou.” Modern American Women Writers. New York, NY. Charles Scribner &
Sons. 1991. pgs. 1-7.
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