Born on April 4 1928 in St. Louis Missouri. An author, poet ,civil rights activist, actress and dancer. Maya Angelou was simply impossible to define. She is best known for her critically acclaimed 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, which made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. She fell victim to sexual abuse at the hands of her mothers’ boyfriend when she was 9 years old. Which left her completely mute for 5 years.
It was during her period of silence that she discovered her love for literature and the arts. Angelous’ faced many tribulations in her life that inspired her literary works. With poems such as “ I Knew Why The Caged Bird Sings”, “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” Anhelous poems revolve mainly around the oppression of African Americans, as well as gender inequality and rising above the odds.
I Know Why the caged bird sings
The theme of oppression and racial injustice are the most dominant themes in the poem “I know why the caged Bird sings”. The image of the caged bird living a sorrowful life symbolizes the oppressed African Americans living in slavery. While the free bird living in liberty represents the white, privileged oppressors.
The poem is divided into 6 stanzas with the third stanza repeated twice. The repetition of the stanza is used in order to put stress on the horrific condition of the caged bird and emphasize the birds longing for freedom.
The freedom and joy experienced by the first bird in its natural, unrestricting habitat are best expressed in the first stanza as the poet beautifully describes how “ A free bird leaps, on the back of the wind, and floats downstream, till the current ends, and dips his wing, in the orange sun rays, and dares to claim the sky.”
The first bird happily flies from one place to another as if it owns the sky. The free bird represents the Whites who had all the freedom they wanted yet they still craved more.
The joyful condition of the first bird is immediately contrasted by the image of a lonely bird trapped in a cage “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied” he is denied freedom of movement
The caged bird symbolizes the sad, miserable life of the African Americans who where subjected to inhumane cruelty and tyranny.
The rage and helplessness of those people who had to endure racial discrimination is brilliantly expressed through the pathetic condition of the caged bird. Whose only solace is his voice.
The free bird already has so much freedom yet selfishly desires for more. Whereas the caged bird lives in agony and sorrow knowing that the cage has become his “grave of dreams”
The poems tone fluctuates between a positive and joyful feeling, to an aura of sadness and negativity. It uses an array of words to describe the contrasting images of the two birds. For example, the first and fourth stanzas brilliantly illustrates the life of the free bird using images such as “free bird leaps on the back of the wind”, “he names the sky as his own”. Furthermore, the second and third stanzas depict the sorrowful life of the caged bird using phrases such as “ narrow cage”, “his wings are clipped, his feet are tied” , “the caged bird sings for freedom” to show the desperation of the caged bird and just how much he longs for freedom.
The poem however ends of a positive note. Affirming that no matter what, the caged bird with continue to sing for freedom. Just like the African Americans will continue the fight for hope and a better tomorrow.
the “caged bird” is a metaphor for not only the poet herself, but the entire African American community. It represents the misery and distress of all those African Americans who had to endure cruel and inhuman treatment. Angelou also uses personification in the line “sighing trees”. Giving trees the feeling of sadness and sorrow.
Another major theme common in many of Angelou’s works is the theme of feminism and women empowerment. And no poem does this theme justice quite like “phenomenal Woman”.
The poem starts off with a flock of women intrigued by the speaker’s popularity among male suiters and want to know the secret of her success.
The speaker openly admits that she is neither cute nor model thin, so it makes the women even more curious as to how she gets the most male attention.
The speaker proudly flaunts her body and refuses to adhere to society’s standards of beauty. Her real appearance “the length of my arms, the span of my hips, the curl of my lips” makes her such an intriguing woman.
She tells the women that it’s not her physical appearance that makes men swarm around her like bees. It’s the way she exudes confidence and how she displays herself that makes her so popular. She never does or says anything outrageous to draw attention. She wins attention just by proudly being who she is “it’s 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.” She is complete an flawless by simply being a woman. She doesn’t need to gloss up her appearance or follow the norms of beauty to rise up. Her supreme confidence makes her a “phenomenal woman”.
the poem “Phenomenal Woman” contains four stanzas with the number of lines varying in each stanza. Since the poem is written in free verse, it has a very irregular rhyming scheme, however repetition is a major part in the poem and can be seen in the lines “I am a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me” which is an example of refrain. It gets repeated in all stanzas of the poem to assert the speaker’s unflinching confidence about her phenomenal identity and the celebration of womanhood. The poem contains very lucid and casual language that may seem simple on a surface level. However, it illustrates perfectly what makes a “phenomenal Woman”.
The poem mainly revolves around the theme of women empowerment. The speaker is proud of her inner and physical beauty, she exudes extreme confidence that attracts both males and females alike. Regardless of her physical features.
The poem also celebrates individuality and defying cultural stereotypes. The speaker explains that she does not fit the mold created by society “I am not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size”.
The poem is filled with metaphors an imagery to help convey the theme “they swarm around me, a hive of honey bees” The poet here compares the men swarming around the speaker to a flock of honey bees. So the speaker can be seen as some sort of Queen bee.
The second metaphor in the poem can be seen in the line “the fire in my eyes” where she compares her confidence to a fire burning bright.
Angelou uses descriptive imagery to vividly paint a picture to the readers of a strong, powerful, ideal woman.
Still I Rise
the last theme dominant in many of Angelou’s poems is the theme of perseverance and rising above the odds. Angelou’s “still I rise” is a declaration of independence, that she for one will not let prejudice deteriorate her self-worth or the hatefulness of society to determine her own success.
The poem revolves around a speaker, who is a black woman, standing up in the face of oppression while society relentlessly tries to humiliate and demean the speaker as well as spread “lies” and present them as the truth. The speaker responds to the cruel treatment by not only surviving, but thriving “ I am the dream and the hope of the slave” regardless of the oppressors negative and hateful acts of violence, the speaker continues to prosper.
The poet speaks about facing constant criticism as a dark skinned person.
She also details how the oppressors want to physically and mentally harm her and her people. But the speaker is proud of her identity, which she expresses in various ways “bringing gifts that my ancestors gave” she sees her heritage as a gift which she honors. Instead of wallowing in stress and fear, she aims to live a happy and confident life by openly challenging those who pull he down.
The speaker has no power to defend herself against the oppressor, therefore, the amount of physical and mental torture placed upon her escalades. “Still I Rise” is a poem filled with figurative language to illustrate the harsh and painful reality of the racism. For example: “you may shoot me with your words” here the poet is comparing shooting a gun with the painful language she endured by the hands of the oppressors. Another example “you may cut me with your eyes” much like the previous example, the poet compares violence to the cruel and hateful looks directed towards her and others like her. The speaker uses metaphors to express just how much it hurts to be bombarded by peoples despicable language and cruel stares.
The main themes of the poem are self-respect and thriving against the odds. The speaker expresses that no matter what, she will overcome all the obstacles she encounters. She will jump over any hurdle planted her way and nothing, not peoples hurtful words, evil stares or physical violence can hold her back.
To conclude. Maya Angelou has a very distinct writing style that is very recognizable in all her poems. She uses very simple langue that is understandable by all, yet it conveys powerful messages. She has endured many misfortunes and tribulations in her life regarding her gender and race. During her years of silence, Angelou learnt to express her feelings through literature and the arts since she was deprived of speech. Throughout her life, Angelou fell victim to discrimination and oppression by the hands of cruel, unjust white people who wanted to see the African American community fall. Angelou uses racism and as a main theme in many of her poems including “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal woman”. These poems express heavily the message of not only the racial injustice, but also defying the norms and conquering hardships no matter the gender or skin color.