Maya Angelou Biography

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Author/Context

Maya Angelou was born in 1938, and has led a full and public life. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her most famous work, is the poeticized true story of her childhood in Arkansas and California. She has continued her autobiography with Gather Together in My Name, which is considered superior to Caged Bird in literary style, but inferior in terms of ideas and content. Later volumes, which focus on specific parts of her political or ideological life, include Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas and The Heart of Woman. These works have found a place in the canon of African American literature. Some critics have likened them to Frederick Douglass' autobiography: both Angelou and Douglass chronicled their lives in the hope of uniting African Americans through their common experiences of racism and perseverance. Angelou has also written many volumes of poetry, including Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, and read a poem for Bill Clinton's inauguration. The poem, called On the Pulse of the Morning, which celebrated America's diversity, was praised by some as heartfelt and song-like, but others, like Ishamel Reed, thought it sounded as though it had been written in her hotel room the night before.

Angelou has confronted mixed reviews of her work since she began writing, but no one questions her passion and ambition. Throughout her life, and sometimes all at once, she has been a singer, a dancer, a playwright, an actress on stage and screen, a mother, a wife ("I've never told anyone how many times I've been married...people tend to think that if a person marries frequently, he or she is frivolous") and a friend to everyone from author James Baldwin to Martin Luther King, Jr. She has written a few books for children. Recently, at 74, she launched her Hallmark line of "Maya Angelou Life Mosaic" products-cards, pillows, wind chimes, etc. Years ago, for a short time she was a prostitute, and has dabbled in drugs. Once, however, she realized that she could choose for herself whether or not to continue her life in the criminal underworld, she chose to get out. She has traveled the world, working as a journalist in Ghana and Cairo.

As a political activist, she has dealt most often with the difficulties of being African American and female in the United States. She has said that she feels most at home in Africa, where racism is largely not an issue. She has met people in Ghana who look like her and her relatives, and feels a strange kinship with them, wondering if they might be distantly related. For a woman who spent years as a child away from her own parents, this feeling was very important. She has struggled with her own anti-white sentiments at times: she married a white man but divorced him soon after, partly because she felt she was betraying her heritage. Her most consistent message, however, is perhaps a call for strength: the strength that comes from community, and that which comes from within oneself. Many of her poems, such as Phenomenal Woman, concern women who draw their strength from their womanhood. This is unsurprising, since Angelou never had a consistent male role model, but found two models of strong womanhood in her mother and grandmother. For Angelou, however, strength has never meant infallibility. Nor does it necessarily mean happiness. Caged Bird takes its title from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which concludes:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!

Bibliography

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.

Barbour, S., Leone, B., Szumski, B., Williams, M., eds. Readings on Maya Angelou. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

West, Cassandra. "A Woman for All Seasons and Seasonings." Chicago Tribune. 17 April 2002, Section 8:1.

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