This post may be a long one, but I have so much to say about this woman that I can’t shorten it down.
Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson, was an author, poet, mentor and civil rights activist. Her autobiography series beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has captured the hearts of people across the world, with critics deeming Caged Bird as an international classic.
“A truly phenomenal woman”- Barack Obama
“I know that not since the days of my childhood, when people in books were more real than the people one saw every day, have I found myself so moved.”- James Baldwin
As well as being a phenomenal author and poet, Maya Angelou holds numerous honorary degrees, toured Europe as a cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, was a journalist in Egypt and Ghana, assisted Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in their civil rights quests and recited one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. She wrote various books for children, cookbooks, plays and screenplays. In the span of her life she was also a mother, grandmother, friend and mentor to not only her immediate social circles, but to people across the globe. People like me, people who found guidance in her that they may not have realised they were looking for or needed.
ANYWAY, as this is an author spotlight, I am going to discuss her works briefly. I’ll begin with the autobiographies, then the essay collections, and end with the poetry. I’m also going to scatter through some of my favourite quotes. I hope you enjoy!
Let’s crack on, shall we?
I own all 7 of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, three of her poetry collections, and one of her essay collections. The autobiographies and two of the poetry collections are in matching editions by Virago and I am quite attached to them. They are paperback editions, and are simply stunning.
Maya Angelou originally had refused to write an autobiography when asked, and focused primarily on her work as a poet. She was pestered and pestered to consider writing an autobiography, as people became captivated and intrigued by her anecdotes from her childhood in Stamps, Arkanas (she joked that the area was so racist that she wasn’t even allowed to eat vanilla ice cream, it had to be chocolate). She recieved a phonecall from her soon to be editor, who after months of attempting to persuade Maya to write an autobiography told her that actually, it may in fact be for the best that she doesn’t try, as it is a very difficult task and very hard to publish an autobiography as an acclaimed piece of literature. At this challenge, Maya consented to writing a book of her life, but maintained she would only write one.
We ended up being graced with 7 autobiographies, these being:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
- Gather Together in My Name (1974)
- Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976)
- The Heart of a Woman (1981)
- All God’s Childreen Need Travelling Shoes (1986)
- A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
- Mom & Me & Mom (2013)
The series begins with Caged Bird, which covers one of the largest portions of time of her life, with other books focusing on periods as small as a few years, and it describes in depth growing up in a racist town in Arkansas. Maya tells of the racial tensions which are always in the background of her life, the intricacies of the struggles in growing up that we all encounter, and discusses some traumatic experiences. This book is gorgeously written, as all of her autobiographies are, and has the innocence of childhood woven through the pages.
Each autobiography covers a significant time of Maya’s life, such as her marriages, the time she spent travelling Europe as part of Porgy and Bess, her time in Egypt and Ghana and much more. Maya shares her trials and tribulations, the good moments, and the lessons she has learned throughout life with an honest outlook. Maya addresses the mistakes she’s made, but never hides from them. She instead shares what she’s learned and how she moved on. For somebody who faced so many challenges, her thirst for life is evident throughout the books.
Her autobiographies have many underlying themes throughout, including race and identity. In particular, the ideas of race and identity are interlinked, as Maya struggles with the perceptions she has of white Americans in the midst of racist America, as well as her own cultural identity, and whether she fit with the images and norms of black women at the time. Instead of conforming to her culture, Maya breaks every boundary and redefines herself and is growing and changing constantly. While there are mentions of race, she equally does not let this theme take centre stage, and instead focuses more on herself and her endeavours. Throughout the books she uses every event and situation as a chance for reflection. Her autobiographies evoke a sense of bravery, strength and passion for life. The 7 combined read like an extended coming of age story, as Maya is always developing and progressing as a person.
With the autobiographies, you can read Caged Bird without having to read the rest, as they all stand pretty much independently of each other, picking up at different stages of her life. I would recommend everybody to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and to let Maya teach you all the lessons on life and help to guide you through.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.”
“Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of. I knew I knew very little, but I was certain that the things I had yet to learn wouldn’t be taught to me at George Washington High School. ”
The Essay Collections:
Maya Angelou also wrote collections of personal essays, on different topics and discussing different themes. These are published in three different collections:
- Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
- Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997)
- Letter to My Daughter (2008)
Of these three, I have only read Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, as I’m trying to savour what I still have left to read of Angelou’s work. It is quite a short collection, under 150 pages. However, in these pages Angelou writes briefly and poignantly about a number of different topics; self respect, extending your horizons, complaining and the idea that this adds nothing to your life, and various other topics. My personal favourite in this collection is titled A Day Away, where Maya discusses the importance of taking time to yourself, and separating yourself from your life for a while to have some breathing space. I love this essay in particular, as it has inspired me to do more things alone and to be more confident in doing so. I often feel like I need a break from people and the pressures of day to day life, and this essay sums up how I feel on the subject and I am in the process of taking a leaf out of Maya’s book and organising a getaway trip on my own.
Any topic Maya Angelou chooses to tackle in her essays she does so while drafting from personal experience, providing anecdotes throughout. Every point she makes is well argued and explained, and is beautifully written. I can’t wait to read more of her essay collections in the future, as each one gives me more to think about, broadens my mind and outlook and teaches me something valuable.
“In my young years I took pride in the fact that luck was called a lady. In fact, there were so few public acknowledgements of the female presence that I felt personally honoured whenever nature and large ships were referred to as feminine. But as I matured, I began to resent being considered a sister to a changeling as fickle as luck, as aloof as an ocean, and as frivolous as nature.”
“It is wise to take the time to develop one’s own way of being, increasing those things one does well and eliminating the elements in one’s character which can hinder and diminish the good personality.”
“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.”
Now, I am no poetry expert and do not pretend to be. However, there is something about the poetry I have read by Maya Angelou that I fall in love with each time I read them or listen to them being read. I would encourage anybody to listen to her reciting her poetry herself, there are clips of her recitals on YouTube.
There are a number of different collections of her poetry. I own three, these being:
- Celebrations, Rituals of Peace and Prayer (Virago edition)
- Still I rise (Virago edition)
- The Complete Collected Poems (Virago edition)
Similar to her essays, her poetry varies in subject, length and themes. And similar to all of her writing, these are emotional, evocative, poignant, descriptive and a pleasure to read. Her poetry stands the test of time and is still accessible and relevant.
My personal favourite of her poems is the inaugural poem, which she recited at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993, titled On the Pulse of Morning. This is a poem which retraces the steps of the world, from it’s creation and how it has stood the test of time, and how all people, specifically Americans are descendants of refugees, travellers, immigrants etc. It reiterates the diversity of the country and encourages humans to properly consider the world and look at life without fear of what they might see, and to change their outlooks and search for peace. The poem draws to a close with a beautiful message, that a new morning, a new dawn is coming for humankind and that this needs to be approached with strength and open mindedness. I would encourage anybody to listen to her reciting her poetry herself, her recital of On the Pulse of Morning can be found here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59xGmHzxtZ4
“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Other poems which I could recommend to give you a feel for her work would be And Still I Rise, and Phenomenal Woman.
I would like to end this post with a few words on why Maya Angelou means so much to me, and a few of my favourite quotes.
Maya Angelou embodies so many of the things that I would love to be and hope someday that I will be; strong, confident, brave and selfless. As I have already said, her passion for life and living and experience is a true inspiration. I picked up Caged Bird and became transfixed with her and her work, learning so much along the way. Her work has opened up my mind and my eyes, and helped me better myself and to grow and has changed my perception of myself. Her strength in challenging body image and expectations gave me a new found respect for myself and my own body. Her courage when struggling through the most challenging of times reinforced and comforted me in teaching me that everything is temporary, and has helped me learn to cope and move on when what may seem like tragedy befalls me. I strongly believe that no matter how strong or self actualised a person that you are, anybody could take something new and meaningful and vital away from her work, learning to be better in the process. She is truly a phenomenal woman, and a testament to what mankind can produce. It is comforting to know that so many people have been touched by her and that her words have done so much for so many people. I will be forever thankful for all I have learned, and all I still have to learn from Maya Angelou.
“I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now, and to be able to love. Because that liberates, love liberates. It doesn’t just hold, that’s ego. Love liberates.”
“Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words, I think they’re things, I think they got on the walls, they get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes and finally into you.”
“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
“However low you perceive me now, I am headed for higher ground.”
I hope you guys enjoyed this post as much as I loved writing it. Maya Angelou will forever be one of my biggest inspirations and role models and I am excited to share my thoughts with you.
Until next time.