As she adds successive volumes to her life story, she is performing for contemporary black American women--and men, too--many of the same functions that escaped slave Frederick Douglass performed for his nineteenth-century peers through his autobiographical writings and lectures. Both become articulators of the nature and validity of a collective heritage as they interpret the particulars of a culture for a wide audience of whites as well as blacks; as one critic said, Angelou illuminates "with the intensity of lightning the tragedy that was once this nation's two-track culture." As people who have lived varied and vigorous lives, they embody the quintessential experiences of their race and culture.
An account of the life and major writings of Maya Angelou is of necessity based largely on information that she herself has supplied in her autobiographies; where lacunae exist, they do so because Angelou herself has chosen not to discuss certain periods of time, events, or people. "I will say how old I am , I will say how tall I am [six feet], but I will not say how many times I have been married," she told an interviewer in 1981; "It might frighten them off."
Angelou's odyssey--psychological, spiritual, literary, as well as geographical--begins with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , generally acceded to be the best of her four autobiographical volumes and the exclusive focus, to date, of serious critical attention. Marguerite Johnson (she did not become Maya Angelou until her debut as a dancer at the Purple Onion cabaret in her early twenties) was born in St. Louis on 4 April 1928 to Bailey and Vivian Baxter Johnson. When she was three and her brother Bailey was four, they were sent by their divorced parents to live in Stamps, Arkansas, which was, she said, the same as "Chitlin' Switch, Georgia; Hang 'Em High, Alabama; Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi." "High spots in Stamps were usually negative," she observes, "droughts, floods, lynchings and deaths."
There Angelou remained for a decade, reared by her maternal grandmother, Annie ("Momma") Henderson, who kept a country store and ruled her grandchildren with the same sense of "work, duty, religion," and morality with which she ruled her own life. Observes Angelou, "I don't think she ever knew that a deep-brooding love hung over everything she touched."
In Stamps Angelou learned what it was like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries were set by whites. She learned what it meant to wear for Easter a "plain ugly cut-down [dress] from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway," her skinny legs "greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay." As a young child she expected at any minute to wake from "my black ugly dream" and find her "Nappy black hair" metamorphosed to a long, blonde bob. She thought, then, that "God was white," but wondered whether He would "allow His only Son to mix with this crowd of cotton pickers and maids, washerwomen and handymen." She learned the humiliation of being refused treatment by a white dentist who would "'rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's.'"
But she learned, also, that blacks would not only endure, but prevail. Momma, head of one of the few black families "not on relief" during the Depression, was an honest but shrewd business-woman who could turn aside the taunts of the "powhitetrash" and beat the bigoted dentist at his own game. From her Angelou learned common sense, practicality, and the ability to control one's own destiny that comes from constant hard work and courage, "grace under pressure." She learned, sometimes forcibly, the literature of black writers: "Bailey and I decided to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice, but we realized that Momma would question us about the author and that we'd have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn't matter to her whether he was dead or not. So we chose 'The Creation' by James Weldon Johnson instead."
But the pride in herself this new knowledge engendered took a devastating fall when she was eight, during a brief stay in St. Louis with her beautiful mother, Vivian Baxter, "light-skinned with straight hair." She was raped by her mother's boyfriend, a taciturn "big brown bear" who was found "dropped ... [or] kicked to death" shortly afterward. In court she had not revealed that she had permitted him to fondle her on two earlier occasions. Therefore she felt responsible for his murder (committed by her uncles), and she decided that "I had to stop talking."
Back in Stamps, where she was sent perhaps because "the St. Louis family just got fed up with my grim presence," her bourgeoning pride disappeared for nearly five years, along with her speech. Both were restored by delicious afternoons, "sweet-milk fresh" in memory, of reading and reciting the world's great literature with Mrs. Flowers, the educated "aristocrat of Black Stamps" who "acted just as refined as whitefolks in the movies and books and ... was more beautiful"; "she made me proud to be a Negro, just by being herself."
She learned during this time the importance of self-expression, as well as communication, for "the wonderful, beautiful Negro race" survives "in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers)." She explained to an interviewer in 1981 that "there isn't one day since I was raped that I haven't thought about it ... I have gotten beyond hate and fear, but there is something beyond that." Her multiple careers in the arts--singing, dancing, and writing--have become ways of transcending her personal hates and fears, as well as of proclaiming her black identity and pride.
In 1940, after Angelou's graduation at the top of her eighth grade, her fun-loving mother, now a professional gambler, moved the children from Stamps to San Francisco, imposing experience on innocence, disorder upon order. Maya's subsequent formal education consisted of attending George Washington High School in San Francisco throughout World War II, while concurrently taking dance and drama lessons at the California Labor School. Her informal schooling, in the "fourteen-room typical San Franciscan post-Earthquake" rooming house her mother ran in the Fillmore District, was much more extensive. From her mother she learned "proper posture, table manners, good restaurants"; from her stepfather, how to play "poker, blackjack, tonk and high, low, Jick, Jack and the Game"; from the household, the ways of shipyard workers, "much-powdered prostitutes," and "the most colorful characters in the Black underground."
These people she accepted as honest in their own way. But she fled the hypocrisy of a summer vacation with her failed father and his nouveau bourgeois girl friend in their tacky trailer in southern California. Unable to return to her mother for a month, she lived in a graveyard of wrecked cars, many inhabited by homeless children whose own natural brotherhood "set a tone of tolerance for my life."
The book ends with her determined rush toward maturity. With the perseverance that foreshadowed later civil rights work, she finally obtained a job, while still in high school, as the first black woman streetcar conductor in San Francisco. With equal determination to prove that she was a woman, she became pregnant and at sixteen was delivered of a son one month after graduation from Mission High School's summer school in 1945. She has since been awarded honorary degrees by Smith College, Mills College, and Lawrence University, among others.
The next installment of Angelou's autobiography, Gather Together in My Name (1974), seems much less satisfactory than the first. This may be in large part because here Angelou is less admirable as a central character than she was in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Here, in instance after instance, she abandons or jeopardizes the maturity, honesty, and intuitive good judgment toward which she had been moving in Caged Bird. Her bold, headstrong temperament leads her to bluff her way into situations dangerous to herself and her infant son, Guy; when she cannot learn enough quickly enough to escape she becomes dependent on others who too often exploit her naivete and good will--when she is not exploiting theirs. As Angelou anatomizes her exploits, it is hard to tell whether she intends this segment of her life story to be emblematic of the lives of all other unwed, undereducated black teenage mothers, or for her misadventures to serve as a warning to others, or to demonstrate as she did in Caged Bird the survival and staying power of black women in adverse circumstances. The wit and panache with which she narrates her picaresque tale prevent it from being a confessional; the writing of this volume itself may be the final exorcism of the flaws.
Angelou is determined to leave her mother's household, "take a job and show the whole world (my son's father) that I was equal to my pride and greater than my pretensions." As soon as she discovered that the Creole Cafe would pay $75 a week for a cook, "I knew I could cook Creole, whatever that was." She learned quickly, and with equal haste fell in love with a customer: "When he opened the steamy door to the restaurant, surely it was the second coming of Christ."
When the affair ended after two months (he was engaged to another woman) Angelou decided to make a new life in San Diego, buttressed by $200 and her mother's advice, unwittingly prophetic: "'Be the best of anything you get into. If you want to be a whore, it's your life. Be a damn good one.'"
Angelou's gradual initiation into prostitution began with a job as a nightclub waitress. There she met a pair of lesbian lovers and, fearing seduction, conned them into letting her become their manager. At eighteen she had "managed in a few tense years to become a snob at all levels, racial, cultural and intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores. I was a waitress and believed myself cleverer than the customers I served. I was a lonely unmarried mother and held myself to be freer than the married women I met."
Seeking sanctuary in Stamps when her ten-week-old empire crashed brought no solace. She talked back to a "slack-butted" store clerk, and the threat of a reprisal by the Ku Klux Klan caused Momma Henderson to send Angelou back to San Francisco for safety. Then, rejected on the eve of her induction into the army because she lied on her application, she escaped into marijuana and sought solace in the dream that is an ironic leitmotif of Gather Together: "I was going to have it made--and no doubt through the good offices of a handsome man who would love me to distraction."
Her artificial high was replaced by a natural one as she became part of a nightclub dancing act, with R.L. Poole as her partner, manager, mentor, and intermittent lover: "As a dancer, my instrument was my body. I couldn't just allow ... anyone to screw my instrument." The emergence of Poole's drug dependent "old lady" ended their liaison, and Angelou fled again into a restaurant kitchen and daydreams of the perfect husband.
Her romantic imagination, inspired by a naivete that never ripened into wisdom during the three-year span of Gather Together, endowed the dapper L.D. Tolbrook, "an established gambler who had Southern manners and big city class," with the means for her salvation. Prepared to be "an old man's darling," deluded by her wish to marry, she too willingly rationalized the virtues of life as a prostitute earning money for him:"'Prostitution is like beauty. It is in the eye of the beholder. There are married women who are more whorish than a street prostitute because they have sold their bodies for marriage licenses, and there are some women who sleep with men for money who have great integrity because they are doing it for a purpose.'"
It took threats of violence from her brother, himself on the verge of drug addiction, to keep her from returning to the whorehouse after a week's dismal stint. She tried a few more legitimate jobs, but survival "didn't take hold." She rejected the traditional options for black women: hustling ("I obviously had little aptitude for that"), working as a housemaid ("I would keep my negative Southern exposures to whites before me like a defensive hand"), or "wrestling with old lady Welfare (my neck wouldn't bend for that)." Prepared to turn to hard drugs again because of an unrealistic romantic love, she was dragged from the edge of addiction's abyss by her lover, who forced her to watch him shoot up in a sewerlike "hit joint for addicts." She concludes her account of this sordid segment of her life with a plea for forgiveness which is devoid of moral reflection. She was seemingly neither sadder nor wiser: "As I watched the wretched nod and scratch, I felt my own innocence as real as a grain of sand between my teeth. I was pure as moonlight and had only begun to live. My escapades were the fumblings of youth and to be forgiven as such."
In the third volume of Angelou's saga, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), her actions finally began to match her aspirations for maturity, though intermittently, as she lurched and ultimately strode through the years from 1950-1955. At about twenty-two (Angelou is usually vague about dates) she married Tosh Angelos, an ex-sailor "intelligent, kind and reliable." And white. Her mother exploded in rage, anticipating "A hell of a wedding gift--the contempt of his people and the distrust of your own."
Although she experienced little of either, the fortress of bourgeois respectability for which she had longed soon became a prison, restrictive of her independence. Too free a spirit to remain fettered for long, she was divorced within three years and resumed her career as a dancer, entertaining customers as the first black dancer at a local bar with "a little rhumba, tango, jitterbug, Susy-Q, trucking, snake hips, conga, Charleston and cha-cha-cha."
Before long she attracted the notice of the much more skilled performers at the chic Purple Onion and was soon, to her amazement, offered a job there: "There whites were treating me as an equal, as if I could do whatever they could do. They did not consider that race, height, or gender or lack of education might have crippled me and that I should be regarded as someone invalided."
Stripped of these excuses for failure, Angelou had to succeed on her own. And she did. She turned down one of the lead roles in the Broadway production of House of Flowers to join the European touring cast of Porgy and Bess. She devotes over half the book to describing the tour--from Montreal to Paris, Zagreb, and Belgrade, from Greece to Egypt, Israel, and Italy: "Dancing and singing every night with sixty people was more like a party than a chore." She loved the ambience of the tightly knit, black professional community; she loved the freedom as well as the work, freedom from housework, "freedom from the constant nuisance of a small child's chatter," freedom from the mores of the bourgeois world she had only recently walked out on.
But duty to her child, nine and miserable without her, drove her home. Guilt over her neglect of him nearly drove her to suicide, but love of life and of motherhood and of dancing drove her instead to resume her career.
In The Heart of a Woman (1981) Angelou intertwines an account of seven years of her own coming of age (1957-1963) with the coming of age of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the women's movement. Her enlarged focus and clear vision transcend the particulars and give this book a fascinating universality of perspective and psychological depth that almost matches the quality of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (in contrast to the shallower and more limited intervening volumes). Its motifs are commitment and betrayal.
By the time she was thirty, Angelou had made a commitment to become a writer. Inspired by her friendship with the distinguished social activist author John Killens, she moved to Brooklyn to be near him and to learn her craft. Through weekly meetings of the Harlem Writers Guild she learned to treat her writing seriously: "If I wanted to write, I had to be willing to develop a kind of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance." And, although it was difficult, she learned to tolerate criticism, however harsh, and was accepted as a practicing member of a group of established writers that included John Henrik Clarke, Paule Marshall, and James Baldwin. Recognizing that "trying to overcome was black people's honorable tradition," Angelou resolved to overcome the problems in her writing until it met the exacting standards of her literary mentors.
At the same time Angelou made a commitment to promote black civil rights. Her widening circle of black intellectual friends was "persistently examining the nature of racial oppression, racial progress and racial integration," excoriating "white men, white women, white children and white history, particularly as is applied to black people." Through Killens and others she learned to acknowledge her kinship with blacks nationwide: "'Georgia is Down South. California is Up South. If you're black in this country you're on a plantation.'"
So when she met Martin Luther King she was prepared to accept his challenge: "We, the black people, the most displaced, the poorest, the most maligned and scourged, we had the glorious task of reclaiming the soul and saving the honor of the country." With comedian Godfrey Cambridge she organized a benefit,"Cabaret of Freedom," for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was starring "on the stage of life," a "general in the army" of fighters against legal discrimination, and as a consequence was soon appointed by the veteran civil rights activist, Bayard Rustin, to succeed him as the SCLC's northern coordinator. During her six months in office she was grateful for the interracial cooperation that was "new and old and dynamic," from children to adults alike, not only in Harlem but throughout the nation. The same dynamism pervaded the black support of communists, from Castro's Cuba to Russia. Angelou vividly captures the mood of the era with snatches of song, dialogue, and slogans that dynamically punctuate this book: "Castro never had called himself white, so he was O.K. from the git ... and as black people often said ... 'Wasn't no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.' 'Hey, Khruschev. Go on, with your bad self.'"
Despite her increasing maturity as a writer and her effective advocacy of black civil rights, Angelou, in her early thirties, still retained the romantic notion of quiet suburban domesticity that had betrayed her repeatedly in her teens and early twenties and was to do so again. She, who by this time had performed with Odetta, and the revolutionary Clancy Brothers ("the shamrock is forbid by law/to grow on Irish ground'"), and had gotten half of Harlem to demonstrate at the United Nations to protest Patrice Lumumba's assassination, proposed marriage to a laconic bail bondsman she had met in a bar. As he plied her with engagement presents of stolen goods he had confiscated, she was preparing to "cook, clean house ... and join some local women's volunteer organizations."
In betraying her active, creative life, she could only betray her fiancé. Indeed, she left him quickly for the bulky, impeccably suave Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter who proposed to her instantly, claiming that their marriage would be "'the joining of Africa and Africa-America!'" Although despite their good intentions they were never legally wed, Make's initial adoration helped Maya, ever romantic, to feel exactly the way she wanted to, like "a young African virgin, made beautiful for her chief." Make convinced her to accept a major theatrical role, as the White Queen in Jean Genet's The Blacks, effectively countering her objection, "`The play says given the chance, black people will act as cruel as whites,'" with, "'Dear Wife, that is a reverse racism. Black people are human. No more, no less.'"
They left New York in the same flutter of unpaid bills that pursued them to Egypt. While Make stumped the world for South African freedom and shamelessly womanized on the side, Angelou violated an African prohibition against women working and got a job to help pay the bills. Make met her announcement that she was associate editor of the English language Arab Observer (another type of work she, typically, had to learn on the job) with a tirade that vilified her "insolence, independence, lack of respect, arrogance, ignorance, defiance, callousness, cheekiness and lack of breeding." "He was right," Angelou concluded. But this marked the beginning of the end of their liaison, as he continued to betray her sexually and she persisted in remaining true to her black American culture that ultimately could not bend to his African world view.
Before a tribunal of the African diplomatic community she defended, "with openness and sass," her decision to leave Make. The "African palaver" vindicated her and assured her an independent welcome in the African community. The Heart of a Woman, which has received consistent critical acclaim, ends with her arrival in Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana to enroll her son in the University of Ghana, her commitment to black freedom--as well as her own--intact. From 1973 to 1981 she was married to Paul du Feu.
In describing her development in her autobiographies, Angelou gives generous credit to the influences of dominant women during her childhood. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings focuses on three impressive female role models: "Momma" Henderson, her powerful, enterprising, righteous, religious grandmother: Mrs. Flowers, beautiful, cultivated, and pridefully black; and her mother, the sexy, sassy, and savvy embodiment of black mores. The combined characteristics of these women became leitmotifs throughout the volumes of Angelou's autobiography.
Men, however, get little credit for who she is and how she got that way. During Angelou's childhood, adult black men were either absent (her father), weak (her crippled uncle), subservient to women (her uncle and her mother's boyfriends), sexually abusive (the man who raped her), or lazy and hedonistic (her father when she met him again in her teenage years). Of the men she has romantic relationships with as an adult (to the point at which Heart of a Woman ends), the blacks are either stodgy (her bail bondsman fiancé) or unwilling to make a long-term commitment (Make). The man who treats her with greatest respect and affection is white (Angelos, her first husband).
But the primary disruptive factor in all these relationships is Angelou's quest for self-identity, manifested through self-assertiveness and the self-expression that come not only from her careers as a dancer, a singer, and a writer, but from being very good at these endeavors. As she matures, she becomes more and more her own person. Through her own efforts and innate talent, which she minimizes in concentrating on the results, she succeeds early and spectacularly in these highly competitive fields in which many fail. Her enjoyment of the freedom, mobility, independence, and acclaim that success makes possible is evident from the zestful assurance with which she writes her autobiographies.
Angelou's three slim volumes of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water' fore I Diiie (1971, which incorporates many of the lyrics from the 1969 recording of The Poetry of Maya Angelou), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), and And Still I Rise (1978), are of lesser stature than her autobiographical writing.
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. Some of her poems extol the survivors, those whose black pride enables them to prevail over the otherwise demeaning circumstances of their existence. Thus in "When I Think About Myself" she adopts the persona of an aging domestic to comment ironically about the phenomenon of black survival in a world dominated by whites: "Sixty years in these folks' world/The child I works for calls me girl/I say `Yes ma'am' for workings' sake./Too proud to bend/Too poor to break." In "Times-Square-Shoeshine Composition," the feisty black shoeshine boy defends, in dialect, his thirty-five-cent price against the customer who tries to cheat him out of a dime, his slangy remarks punctuated by the aggressive "pow pow" of the shoeshine rag.
Other poems deal with social issues and problems which, though not unique to blacks, are explored from a black perspective. In "Letter to an Aspiring Junkie," a street-smart cat cautions the prospective junkie to beware, "Climb into the streets, man, like you climb/into the ass end of a lion." Angelou sympathizes with the plight of abandoned black children, embodied in "John J," whose "momma didn't want him," and who ends up gambling in a bar with a "flinging singing lady." Her superficial look at "Prisoners" shows them predictably experiencing "the horror/of gray guard men"--"It's jail/and bail/then rails to run." At her most irritating, Angelou preaches. In language and hortatory tone reminiscent of popular turn-of-the-century poetry, she advises readers to "Take Time Out" to "show some kindness/for the folks/who thought that blindness/was an illness that/affected eyes alone."
When Angelou's lyrics deal with the common experiences of licit and illicit love, and of youth and aging, she writes from various female perspectives similar to those Dorothy Parker often used, and with Parker's self-consciousness, but without her wit. For example, in "Communication I" the love-lorn damsel, impervious to her wooer's quotations from Pope, Shaw, and Salinger, "frankly told her mother/`Of all he said I understood,/he said he loved another.'" In mundane imagery ("The day hangs heavy/loose and grey/when you're away") a comparable persona laments her lover's evasiveness ("Won't you pull yourself together/For/Me/ONCE"). And she screams at the silent "Telephone," "Ring. Damn you!" Her occasional vivid black dialect, ("But forty years of age ... /stomps/ no-knocking/into the script/bumps a funky grind on the/shabby curtain of youth ....") enlivens expressions that seldom rise above the banal. Her poems seem particularly derivative and cloying when expressed in conventional language: "My pencil halts/and will not go/along that quiet path/I need to write/of lovers false ...."
Angelou's poetry becomes far more interesting when she dramatizes it in her characteristically dynamic stage performances. Angelou's statuesque figure, dressed in bright colors (and sometimes, African designs), moves exuberantly, vigorously to reinforce the rhythm of the lines,the tone of the words. Her singing and dancing and electrifying stage presence transcend the predictable words and rhymes.
In the early 1970s Angelou wrote a screenplay and score for the film Georgia, Georgia, and a ten-part television series on African traditions in American life. Because she continues to write, a final critical assessment of her work would at this point be premature. Yet it is clear from the four-volume serial autobiography that Angelou is in the process of becoming a self-created Everywoman. In a literature and a culture where there are many fewer exemplary lives of women than of men, black or white, Angelou's autobiographical self, as it matures through successive volumes, is gradually assuming that exemplary stature.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins with the words from a spiritual:
What you lookin at me for?
I didn't come to stay ...
Angelou's autobiographical volumes explain both why she is worth being looked at and why, like many blacks, both real and fictional, she "didn't come to stay" but is always moving on. For she is forever impelled by the restlessness for change and new realms to conquer that is the essence of the creative artist, and of exemplary American lives, white and black.
From: Bloom, Lynn Z. "Maya Angelou." Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris-Lopez, Gale, 1985. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 38.