However, before describing this phenomenal woman, a brief history of her life will be provided to establish the roots of her exceptional literary talent. Maya Angelo was born as Marguerite Ann Johnson on 4th April 1928, to Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter in SST. Louis, Missouri. When she was three years old, Mama’s parents divorced and since neither parent could afford to raise Maya and her brother Bailey, then four years old, they were shipped off to Stamps, a small town in Arkansas to live with their paternal grandmother. Life in Arkansas revolved around heir grandparents’ store, going to school and attending Sunday mass.
Four years later, Maya and her brother returned to SST. Louis to live with their mother and according to Maya, “seeing her mother after four years, she understood why she had sent them away; Vivian Baxter was too beautiful to spend her time looking after children”. Maya and her brother reacquainted with their maternal extended family and her mother’s new boyfriend, Mr.. Freeman. For six months, Maya and her brother lived with her maternal grandmother together with their mother and threes uncles, until Vivian decide to move in with her boyfriend Mr.. Freeman.
Angelo and her brother were traumatized by the transition from a small town to the big city and as a result, Maya relied on emotional support from Mr.. Freeman, whom she thought of as a father. When Maya was seven years old, Freeman took advantage of Viand’s absence and raped Maya, then threaded to kill her if she told anybody about what had happened. She eventually fell sick and was taken to hospital where she confided to Bailey, who then informed their grandmother, who then called the police. Freeman was arrested and convicted, following Mama’s testimony, to one year in prison.
However, under unusual circumstances, Freeman was released the following day, and was later found kicked to death, in a vacant lot. Maya felt responsible for Freeman’s death thinking that her testimony against him had occasioned his death. Consequently, she decided not to talk to anyone except Bailey, and for five years she remained mute. Eight months later, she and Bailey were sent back to Stamps, where they went back to school, where, Maya, despite her talking disability, performed so well in her studies. One day, at her grandmother’s store, Maya met Mrs..
Flowers, who as sympathetic to her plight and showed Maya new way to express herself, through the literary arts. Maya borrowed books from Mrs.. Flowers and eventually began speaking. After graduating from the Lafayette County Training School, Maya and Bailey were sent to California to live with their mother and later moved to Oakland after her mother remarried. Maya Joined high school and became a mother shortly after. After the birth of her son Clyde, Maya had to work to raise her son, which meant taking up various employment positions ranging from secretary, bar maid, waitress to a dancer.
She got married at nineteen, to Tony Angelo and divorced two ears later upon which she went into professional dancing and acting. In the following years she traveled around Europe, participated in Martin Lather’s movement, got married, lived in Cairo, worked as an editor, moved to Ghana to teach at the university, and then moved back to the US after meeting Malcolm X, to assist him with his movement. However, Malcolm X was assassinated shortly after in 1968 shattering Mama’s dreams and aspirations. It was here that Maya decided, following advice from her close friend James Baldwin, to pursue her writing career.
She began writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which was released in 1970 and chosen for he National Book Award. Maya continued to write more books and poetry many of which, she has been recognized and awarded. Among the awards Angelo has received over the years include the Presidential Medal of Arts (2001); the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for the book Letter to My Daughter; the Lincoln Medal in 2008; and the Medal of Freedom in 2011. Additionally, Maya has been awarded more than thirty honorary degrees and is currently a Reynolds professor of American Studies at the Wake Forest University.
Maya Angelo: A phenomenal literary icon As mentioned earlier, Angelinos autobiographical literary style is what makes her stand out among other literary authors of her time. Unman Ghana and Bushes Anza write: “The life and work of Angelo are fully intertwined. Her work is autobiographical…. She explores her gradual growth from a black child to a grown-up woman… A kind of painful process of recalling and remembering her past which is broken and dismembered in fragments… It truly reflects the essence of her struggle to overcome the restrictions that were placed upon her in a hostile environment.
Angelinos poetry and personal narratives form a large picture wherein the symbolic Angelo rises to become a point of consciousness for Afro-American people . … ” By recounting her story in her narratives and poems, Maya is able to capture her audience’s attention since they are able to relate to her plight. Moreover, she inspires her readership that despite the challenges of life, everyone can still make it. Joanne Brannon in Modern American Women Writers contends that “Readers of her poetry appreciate its rhythm, lyric imagery, and realism….. He people who read Angelinos work include both critics and lay readers, and she has achieved a measure of true notation in their eyes by transcending brutal racism, sexual abuse, and poverty to become one of America’s most celebrated contemporary writers”. Essentially, Angelo seeks to convey the feeling of transcendence in all her works. For example, in the poem Still I Rise Angelo conveys the message of not giving up in the face of adversity, that even when life was tough, she still triumphed.
She writes: Mimi may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt but still, like dust, I’ll rise”; demonstrating to her readers that everyone can still succeed even in the worst of conditions. Another factor that makes Angelo exceptional is her exploration of the social psychological and cultural themes. Notably, most of her work is inundated with themes of social acceptance, love, rejection, loss of love, resistance, racial differences, and national consciousness.
Through her narrations and poems, Maya gives life to issues experienced by individuals in daily life, but often unexplored and disregarded by many. Recurrently, Angelo covers the topics of socio-psychological inferiority, the craving for liberation, and the anger against normalization in her poems reflecting “her own Journey from seclusion’s self to enlightenment and appeals to the modernist sensibility longing for the perseverance of her nativity and dealing with the implied cultural and social differences, ironies and paradoxes”.
Her work explicitly demonstrates her commitment to the poetics of subversion; through which she questions the power, dominance and hegemonic control of the center and the peripheral treatment of the Black community. For example, in the poem Caged Bird, Angelo presents a commentary on the differential treatment of the white and African American culture. In the poem, Maya compares the two cultures to birds , one free and the other caged: hill the free bird has the ability to fly as high as it wants, the caged bird has only the ability to sing for its freedoms since its “wings are clipped and his feet are tied”.
Maya Angelo is also exceptional in her representation of the feminist ideology. According to Ghana and Anza, “her characterization of woman in every way is a kind of self-representation on the part of a sensitive woman, as the state of being in reality with all its multiple shades, colors and icons. She does not reduce herself into a sexual model of woman rather as a whole human being with the openness of a complete personality’. Mama’s concept of a woman is best expressed in the poem Phenomenal Woman where she argues that inner beauty is what makes a woman exceptional, not the external beauty.
Further, Mama’s work is phenomenal due to her unique use of various literary devices such as imagery, symbolism, unique personae, repetition, anaphora, realism and musicality. Ghana and Anza state that: “The texture of her poetry is the skeleton architecture of the real life. She owes the art of transposing feelings into language eloquently. She knows how to integrate the feelings and thought, passion and reality, abstract and concrete, actuality and reenactment’s truths. The use of native proverbs, slang and colloquial language lends it a color of its own and helps to shape her conception of identity, self and acknowledgments.
She pleasurably mixes rhythm, variety, musicality, multiplicity as distinct features in her poetry’. Uniquely, most of Angelinos poetry is lyrical, which is attributable to her career as an actress and dancer. According to Lyman Hagen, “Most of her other poetry could easily be set to music. It is purposely lyrical. It is designed to elicit stirring emotional responses. Much of it is meant to show fun with the milliamp”. Critical Reception Despite the prevalent success of Mama’s work, the overall critic agreement is that her work would hardly be famous, were it not for her autobiographical approach.