Maya Angelou has become a national celebrity since she read her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” at the inauguration of President Clinton. Before that, she was probably best known for her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What is it about Angelou’s writing that is attractive to so many people? In large part, Maya Angelou’s success as a writer is due to her easy-going style of writing that embraces the reader and conveys thoughts and emotions almost effortlessly. For this style, Angelou owes a great debt to her African-American heritage.
Angelou is at her best when she builds on African-American traditions in her work, which she does in practically all of her prose writing, and slips into banality when she abandons them, which is frequently the case in her poetry. The African-American traditions that Angelou uses so well can be traced from Africa to America through cultural traditions, music, and religion. At an English-as-Second-Language workshop I attended at Metro State University in St. Paul, Dr. Beverly Hill discussed how writers from different cultures often have distinct rhetorical traditions on which they base their writing.
One of the examples she used was the oral tradition of many African tribes which led to the adoption of the parable as a means of passing along information. Parable and storytelling became a teaching tool to pass along cultural and moral values from generation to generation. The slave experience in America transformed the oral tradition but did not destroy it, as African-American slaves adapted the old stories and developed new ones to fit in with the Christian religion to which they were being converted.
The legacies of the pre-literate (oral) tradition can still be seen in black churches and music today. Chief among these is the use of storytelling as a means of communicating information, which develops in an oral culture because it is easier to remember information as a story than as a set of facts without context. The oral tradition also gives an added emphasis to the rhythm of the language, with short phrases and repetition used to make the story easier to comprehend and remember.
The final characteristic, which also enhances understanding and memorization, is the conveyance of emotion. In the African-American tradition, the emotion usually starts out at a low smolder, which the author (or storyteller) builds upon until it’s a full blown fire. After the climax, there is very little in the way of downward movement after the story because of the importance of leaving the reader with the powerful emotional impression. Angelou was introduced to the African-American oral tradition through the most obvious and important purveyor of them: the black church.
Growing up in the segregated South with her extremely religious grandmother, Angelou went to church daily and learned to love the language of the church, a language that spills over into her writing to this day. The work in which Angelou most successfully utilizes the African-American traditions in her writing is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first in a series of autobiographical novels. Caged Bird chronicles Maya’s life from the time she is sent to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas until she becomes a single mother at age 18.
The plot of the book is advanced through a series of stories, each detailing some event in Maya’s childhood. Angelou is especially skillful at choosing events that are representative of her experiences as a young black female, yet also somehow accessible to a wide range of readers. Each episode corresponds roughly to one chapter of the book, although some of the chapters rely on previous chapters for context, and some start fresh with a new scene from Angelou’s life. Throughout the book, though, Maya is careful that each story advances the over all plot of the book either emotionally and chronologically.
The overall structure of Caged Bird shows Angelou overcoming a series of problems to reach emotional climax of the book where she realizes that she will be a good mother for her newborn son. In general, each episode follows the same pattern: Maya is faced with some issue or problem which she works through and eventually conquers, a pattern George Kent, in “Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition” calls a “journey through chaos” (163).
Maya’s skill as a writer is evident by the way she manages to make order out of the chaos so that Caged Bird reads like a novel, not a series of short stories. The episode in Caged Bird which most clearly illustrates the African-American traditions is Maya’s graduation from eighth grade. She sets the tone by describing how “the children in Stamps trembled visibly with anticipation” (Angelou Caged Bird 142). Keeping with the oral tradition Angelou slowly builds tension around the graduation by relating the children’s excitement and the parent pride.
She describes Momma’s painstaking work on the “butter-yellow pique dress” and her pride at having excelled academically. Angelou uses many small events which taken together in the context of the story make the reader anticipate graduation night almost as much as Maya must have. The reader only gets a sense of anything amiss when Angelou writes, “Something unrehearsed, unplanned, was going to happen, and we were going to be made to look bad” (Caged Bird 149). After all the excited build up to graduation night, Maya faces her challenge as Mr.
Donleavy, the superintendent of schools, gives his address extolling everything he has done for the white schools, which in the context of the condition of the black school makes it clear that education is not a priority for black students. Angelou writes “Donleavy had exposed us. We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous” (Caged Bird 152). The emotionally powerful climax occurs when Henry Reed, eighth grade class president, begins to sing the Negro national anthem.
As the words of the black poet James Weldon Johnson rang out in song, Maya knew that they were “on top again. As always again. We survived. ” This is obviously an important event in Maya’s life, but it also serves as a lesson to be learned about not letting someone else define who and what you are. This is the essence of the African-American tradition: the storyteller (or writer) sets the scene and leaves the interpretation to the listener (reader).
For Maya, who teaches so many lessons through the stories of her life, the chance to share her wisdom in a “life’s lessons” book, as she does in Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now must have been irresistible. Journey is a collection of short essays in which Angelou gives her opinions on everything from race relations to religion. Angelou adapts well to the short essay form of writing, keeping the immediacy of feeling and the conversational tone that is so often identified as her “voice,” while at the same time writing more compact prose with a more clearly didactic purpose.
Even so, she doesn’t abandon the traditional use of stories to teach her lessons. What she does do is keep the stories shorter and add her own interpretation and recommendations at the end. Take the essay “Living Well. Living Good” for example. Angelou relates a story of her aunt Tee, a live-in domestic servant to a wealthy white couple in Bel Air, told to her. It seems that Aunt Tee often had friends over to her live-in apartment to play cards, and that “fingers snapped, feet patted, and there was a great deal of laughter” (Angelou Journey 63).
One night the wealthy couple came to Aunt Tee’s door and asked if they could watch Tee and her friends. Aunt Tee thought “it was sad that the employers owned the gracious house, the swimming pool, three cars, and numberless palm trees, but had no joy” (Angelou Journey 64). Even though that last sentence is more didactic than is likely to be found in Caged Bird, Angelou doesn’t stop there. As in most of the essays in Journey, the last part of each essay is Angelou’s analysis of what should be learned from the story she just told.
Although it sounds terribly burdensome, Angelou pulls it off as well as if she were sitting across the coffee table in the living room having a nice chat with her friends. She signals the transition by addressing the reader with the informal (and strangely comforting) “My dears” (Angelou Journey 65). She goes on from there to tell the reader how, in her opinion, living well is to be accomplished. Admittedly, the transitions from the story sections of the essays to Angelou’s interpretations can be rough, but that is understandable since her strongest asset as a writer is her storytelling ability.
For the most part, Angelou does a good job adapting her “voice” and writing style to the short essay genre. Unfortunately, Maya is less successful at transferring the African-American elements that make her prose writing come alive to her poetry, which is unusual because she so strongly identifies herself as a poet. She has written several volumes of poetry, most of which have been compiled into one book titled simply Poems. The biggest problem in Angelou’s poetry is that she seems too much shackled to the poets of the late 19th and early 20th century.
In Caged Bird, she admits that she “enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henely,” and that she “saved [her] young passion for Paul Lawernce Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois . . . ” (Angelou 11). To the ear of the late 20th century reader, Angelou’s ties to these undoubtedly fine poets make her poetry sound like tired and faded imitations rather than fresh, new interpretations. In very few poems does Angelou’s “voice,” so clearly heard in Caged Bird and Journey, come through. The poem “In A Time” is a typical example of Angelou’s conventional style poetry.
The rhyme scheme is the “sing-song” A-A-A-B pattern. In addition, Angelou tends to use very conventional imagery which gives a cliched sound to her poems. In “In A time” she writes of “sweet hellos and sad goodbyes” and “Joy . . . brief as summer’s fun” (Angelou Poems 12). Both are images better suited to a Hallmark card than to piece by a nationally recognized poet. There are examples in Angelou’s poetry where her “voice” does come through. Her narrative poems and poems relating personal experience, both tend to be more successful because they allow Maya to use the talent for storytelling that makes her prose work so successful.
No Loser, No Weeper” is a nicely constructed narrative poem which shows how well Angelou can write poetry when she relies on the African-American traditions that make her prose work so successful. In the poem there is a building of tension in the first three stanzas and a turn in the fourth stanza that results in the logical and emotional climax. The first three stanzas are a person speaking (at this point it seems as if to the reader) of things she had lost, a dime, a doll, and a watch, and how much she hates to lose anything.
The fourth stanza starts out with “‘Now if I felt that way bout a watch and a toy, / What you think I feel bout my lover-boy? ” (Angelou Poems 9). The reader finds out that the speaker is talking to another woman, not so subtly warning her about fooling around with her boyfriend. The language is relaxed, sprinkled with “bout”s and “ain’t”s, the “I hate to lose something” punctuates the end of every stanza like a black preacher driving home the message. Each one of these characteristics have been identified as being part of the African-American tradition.
Again, Angelou is a master of this tradition and it is her strong suit as a writer. When she strays from it, her writing gets flatter, less emotional. To put it simply, we no longer hear Angelou’s “voice” that is so engaging in her other works. That Maya Angelou writes her best poetry and prose from the African-American oral tradition seems important in understanding her work. First and foremost the fact that storytelling and parable are important in this tradition lets us know that we as readers are going to have to do much of the work of interpreting the stories and assigning them meaning in a larger context.
Yes, Maya writes about her rape, and her graduation, becoming an unwed mother, and countless other episodes from her personal experience but I pity the reader who can’t also see that the graduation speaks to not letting one be defined by someone else, and that Maya’s motherhood speaks to the uncertainties of the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is important that readers know that much of the subtext of the stories comes from their emotional component. The text provides the breadth of the story, but the emotional response so valued in the African-American culture provides its depth, its heart.
The sound and rhythm of the language, the repetitive qualities, the tempo are the underpinnings of understanding and emotion. These elements don’t seem to be specific to the African-American tradition, and indeed their not. Western literary tradition values these same characteristics, but the rich African-American oral tradition has given talented African-American writers, like Angelou, the voice and authority of generations of ancestors passing along the oral traditions to sing their song.