Maya Angelou is one of the most influential and talented African American writers of our modern day. Those who read Angelous works should not pass the thought of where her influence came from. Maya Angelou’s work has been heavily affected by the era in which she began to write. The fifties and sixties were a tumultuous time for most African-Americans in the US.
The civil-rights movement, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, was instrumental in securing legislation, notably the Civil-Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, schools, employment, and voting for reasons of color, race, religion, or national origin. But all this was gained at a great price, the freedom of many saints who sacrificed for the greater cause, and many years of hard work. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and others pushed for desegregation and equal rights in the face of strong white opposition, and it sometimes became violent.
Many whites protested integration. In 1951, Florida NAACP state secretary Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriet, were killed Christmas night in a bombing of their house. No arrests were ever made. In 1953, black political leader Lamar D. Smith, 63, was shot to death in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse at Brookhaven, Mississippi, after seeking to qualify blacks to vote. More than twenty people witnessed the shooting, including several blacks, but nobody admitted to having seen anything and no witnesses testified against the three white men charged with the murder.
In 1954, black minister George W. Lee was killed at Belzoni, Mississippi, after a week of terror during which whites had vandalized blacks’ property. The blacks had refused to send their children to racially segregated schools, the whites had retaliated by refusing credit to blacks at local stores, and Lee had campaigned for black voting rights. In 1956, Southern congressmen issue a manifesto March 11, pledging to use “all lawful means” to upset the Supreme Court’s 1954 Desegregation ruling.
In 1957, Ku Klux Klansmen accused Alabama grocery-chain truck driver Willie Edwards, 25, of having made remarks to a white woman and forced him at pistol point January 23 to jump to his death from a bridge into the Alabama River. His body was found down river in late April. In 1959, Atlanta integrated its buses on January 21, but the governor of Georgia asked citizens to continue “voluntary” segregation. In 1963, four black Alabama schoolchildren were killed and nineteen people injured September 15 when a bomb exploded at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church while 200 were attending Sunday services.
The deaths provoked racial riots where police dogs were used to attack civil rights demonstrators. In 1964, an Atlanta restaurateur closed his restaurant rather than submit to federal government orders that he serve blacks as well as whites. His opposition to integration propelled him into the governorship of Georgia in 1967, and when he was unable to succeed himself, he continued as lieutenant governor. He passed out pickax handles on the street in front of his restaurant to partisans who would strike any blacks who try to enter. This is the world in which Maya Angelou grew up.
She was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. In the sixties, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , she became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1974, she was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year. In 1993, she wrote and delivered the poem, On the Pulse of the Morning, at the inauguration of President Clinton, at his request. She has also written, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television.
Her most famous performance was probably in Roots on Broadway in 1977, for which she received a Tony award. Her writing is deeply personal, with short lines and a heavy dependence on rhythm and rhyme. Many critics regard it as overly simplistic and childish. ” at times her addiction to rhyme betrays her to banality” (Jayne,1996) She seems most sure of herself when writing about her culture and heritage. “One soon discovers that she is on her surest ground when she borrows’ various folk idioms and forms and thereby buttresses her poems by evoking aspects of a culture’s written and unwritten heritage” (Pamela,2000)
She often uses symbols that can also be found in the lyrics to songs that slaves sang in the fields while they worked. In Still I Rise, the theme of rising and flying to freedom flows throughout. This is based on old African folklore of an old medicine man, the only one left in his tribe not taken by the slave ships from native Africa. Now these are no ordinary people, because they have wings. It is also a highly spiritual tribe, and each person in the tribe has a flower planted in a garden and tended by the medicine man. (Lisandrelli)
These flowers are supposed to represent hope, and when the tribe becomes slaves, the flowers begin to die and the people lose their wings. The medicine man takes the flowers and replants them in the new world, tending them and making them grow again. With the help of his assistant, he reassures his tribe via secret visits that they will soon be free, but they must retain their hope. When the flowers have grown again and he has enough petals, he makes a special drink and feeds to all the members of his tribe. They grow their wings and fly away, out of the reach of the slave owners. (Lisandrelli,1996)
Another symbol frequently used in African folklore and restated in Angelou’s poetry is the drums. A staple in all ancient African rituals, this symbol is a tie to the past. Mentioned in Equality, Angelou uses the continuous beating and unchanging rhythms of the drums to declare that she will not change to be equal “While my drums beat out the message and the rhythms never change. Hear the tempo so compelling, hear the blood throb in my veins. Yes, my drums are beating nightly, and the rhythms never change” (Angelou) Frequent mentions of her heroes, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. nd Uncle Tom litter her poetry, adding detail to the pictures she paints if one knows the history behind these prominent references.
Elegy, for example was dedicated to Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, who she looked up to and admired for their courage and devotion to their race. (Reilly,1994) She exalts her homeland of the South despite her dark past there, from being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was eight to becoming an unplanned mother at the age of sixteen with a father she barely knew. (Reilly,1994) Although bare on rhyme , Angelou’s warmth, honesty, strength, and defiance come through in every word she sets down.
Ringing with black pride, her poetry conveys the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans during the past forty years. Maya Angelou is a remarkable Renaissance woman who is hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature. As poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director, she continues to travel the world, spreading her legendary wisdom. (Miller,1982) “Within the rhythm of her poetry and elegance of her prose lies Angelou’s unique power to help readers of every orientation span the lines of race and class.
Passionate and exuberant, Angelou is an ambassador to people worldwide, sharing lessons on the human spirit, and what each of us can dream about, strive toward, fail at, endure and still survive. ” (Miller,1982) She is an advocate for the betterment and education of all, encouraging us to surpass our potential, both as individuals and as communities of people. Through her unselfish gifts of poetry, story and song, Maya Angelou continues to demonstrate what it means to be a truly Phenomenal Woman.