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Maya Angelou ( born Marguerite Ann Johnson; April 4, 1928) is an American author and poet. She has published six autobiographies, five books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than fifty years. She has received dozens of awards and over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of seventeen, and brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Angelou's list of occupations includes pimp, prostitute, night-club dancer and performer, castmember of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, author, journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization, and actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Since 1982, she has taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. She was active in the Civil Rights movement, and worked with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Since the 1990s she has made around eighty appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.
With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou was one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. She is respected as a spokesperson of Black people and women, and her works have been considered a defense of Black culture. Although attempts have been made to ban her books from some US libraries, her works are widely used in schools and universities worldwide. Angelou's major works have been labeled as autobiographical fiction, but many critics have characterized them as autobiographies. She has made a deliberate attempt to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel. Angelou is best known for her autobiographies, but she is also an established poet, although her poems have received mixed reviews.
Life and career
Marguerite Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and a navy dietitian, and Vivian (Baxter) Johnson, a nurse and card dealer. Angelou's older brother, Bailey Jr., nicknamed Marguerite "Maya," shortened from "My" or "Mya Sister." When Angelou was three, and her brother four, their parents' "calamitous marriage" ended. Their father sent them to Stamps, Arkansas, alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. In "an astonishing exception” to the harsh economics of African Americans of the time, Angelou's grandmother prospered financially during the Great Depression and World War II because the general store she owned sold needed basic commodities and because "she made wise and honest investments".
And Angelou's life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.
Four years later, the children's father "came to Stamps without warning" and returned them to their mother's care in St. Louis. At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. She confessed it to her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty, but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she has stated, "I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone ..." According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her.
Shortly after Freeman's murder, Angelou and her brother were sent back to their grandmother once again. Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors that would affect her life and career, as well as Black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. When Angelou was 14, she and her brother moved in with their mother once again; she had since moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, she attended George Washington High School while studying dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. Before graduating, she worked as the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, who also became a poet.
Angelou's second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, recounts her life from age 17 to 19 and "depicts a single mother's slide down the social ladder into poverty and crime." Angelou worked as "the front woman/business manager for prostitutes," restaurant cook, and prostitute. She moved through a series of relationships, occupations, and cities as she attempted to raise her son without job training or advanced education.
Adulthood and early career: 1951–61
Angelou's first album, Miss Calypso, produced in 1957, was made possible due to the popularity of her nightclub act.
In 1951, Angelou married Greek electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos, despite the condemnation of interracial relationships at the time and the disapproval of her mother. She took modern dance classes during this time, and met dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford. Angelou and Ailey formed a dance team, calling themselves "Al and Rita", and performed Modern Dance at fraternal Black organizations throughout San Francisco, but never became successful. Angelou, her new husband, and son moved to New York City so that she could study African dance with Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus, but they returned to San Francisco a year later.
After Angelou's marriage ended in 1954, she danced professionally in clubs around San Francisco, including the nightclub The Purple Onion, where she sang and danced calypso music. Up to that point she went by the name of "Marguerite Johnson", or "Rita", but at the strong suggestion of her managers and supporters at The Purple Onion she changed her professional name to "Maya Angelou", a "distinctive name" that set her apart and captured the feel of her Calypso dance performances. During 1954 and 1955 Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She began her practice of trying to learn the language of every country she visited, and in a few years she gained proficiency in several languages. In 1957, riding on the popularity of calypso, Angelou recorded her first album, Miss Calypso, which was reissued as a CD in 1996. She appeared in an off-Broadway review that inspired the film Calypso Heat Wave, in which Angelou sang and performed her own compositions.
Angelou met novelist James O. Killens in 1959, and at his urging, moved to New York to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several major African-American authors, including John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and Julian Mayfield, and was published for the first time. After meeting and hearing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1960, she and Killens organized "the legendary" Cabaret for Freedom to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she was named SCLC's Northern Coordinator. According to scholar Lyman B. Hagen, her contributions to civil rights as a fundraiser and SCLC organizer were successful and "eminently effective". Angelou also began her pro-Castro and anti-apartheid activism during this time.
Africa to Caged Bird: 1961–69
In 1961, Angelou performed in Jean Genet's The Blacks, along with Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Cicely Tyson. That year she met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make; they never officially married. She and her son Guy moved to Cairo with Make where Angelou worked as an associate editor at the weekly English-language newspaper The Arab Observer. In 1962 her relationship with Make ended, and she and Guy moved to Accra, Ghana, he to attend college, where he was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Angelou remained in Accra for his recovery and ended up staying there until 1965. She became an administrator at the University of Ghana, and was active in the African-American expatriate community. She was a feature editor for The African Review, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, wrote and broadcast for Radio Ghana, and worked and performed for Ghana's National Theatre. She performed in a revival of The Blacks in Geneva and Berlin.
In Accra, she became close friends with Malcolm X during his visit in the early 1960s. Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1965 to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he was assassinated shortly afterward. Devastated and adrift, she joined her brother in Hawaii, where she resumed her singing career, and then moved back to Los Angeles to focus on her writing career. She worked as a market researcher in Watts and witnessed the riots in the summer of 1965. She acted in and wrote plays, and returned to New York in 1967. She met her lifelong friend Rosa Guy and renewed her friendship with James Baldwin, whom she had met in Paris in the 1950s and called "my brother", during this time. Her friend Jerry Purcell provided Angelou with a stipend to support her writing.
In 1968, Martin Luther King asked Angelou to organize a march. She agreed, but "postpones again", and in what Gillespie calls "a macabre twist of fate", he was assassinated on her 40th birthday (April 4). Devastated again, she was encouraged out of her depression by her friend James Baldwin. As Gillespie states, "If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou's spirit and creative genius". Despite almost no experience, she wrote, produced, and narrated "Blacks, Blues, Black!", a ten-part series of documentaries which dealt with the connection between blues music and Black Americans' African heritage, as well as what Angelou called the "Africanisms still current in the U.S." for National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS. Also in 1968, inspired at a dinner party she attended with Baldwin, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and his wife Judy, and challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis, she wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, which brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Angelou's Georgia, Georgia, produced by a Swedish film company and filmed in Sweden, the first screenplay written by a Black woman, was released in 1972. She also wrote the film's soundtrack, despite having very little additional input in the filming of the movie. Angelou married Welsh carpenter and ex-husband of Germaine Greer, Paul du Feu, in San Francisco in 1973. In the next ten years, as Gillespie has stated, "She had accomplished more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime". She worked as a composer, writing for singer Roberta Flack and composing movie scores. She wrote articles, short stories, TV scripts and documentaries, autobiographies and poetry, produced plays, and was named visiting professors of several colleges and universities. She was "a reluctant actor", and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Look Away. In 1977 Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. She was given a multitude of awards during this period, including over thirty honorary degrees from colleges and universities from all over the world.
In the late 1970s, Angelou met Oprah Winfrey when Winfrey was a TV anchor in Baltimore, Maryland; Angelou would later become Winfrey's close friend and mentor. In 1981, Angelou and du Feu divorced. She returned to the southern United States in 1981, where she accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and she taught a variety of subjects that reflected her interests, including philosophy, ethics, theology, science, theater, and writing.
In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Her recitation resulted in more fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal "across racial, economic, and educational boundaries". The recording of the poem was awarded a Grammy Award. In June 1995, she delivered what Richard Long called her "second 'public' poem", entitled "A Brave and Startling Truth", which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Angelou finally achieved her goal of directing a feature film in 1996, Down in the Delta, which featured actors such as Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit in a customized tour bus, something she continued into her eighties. In 2000, she created a successful collection of products for Hallmark, including greeting cards and decorative household items. Over thirty years after Angelou began writing her life story, she completed the sixth and final autobiography in her series of six, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, in 2002.
Angelou campaigned for Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries. When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou put her support behind Senator Barack Obama, who won the election and became the first African American president of the United States. She stated, "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism". In late 2010, Angelou donated her personal papers and career memorabilia to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. They consisted of over 340 boxes of documents that featured her handwritten notes on yellow legal pads for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a 1982 telegram from Coretta Scott King, fan mail, and personal and professional correspondence from colleagues such as her editor Robert Loomis.
I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.
Maya Angelou, 1999
I also wear a hat or a very tightly pulled head tie when I write. I suppose I hope by doing that I will keep my brains from seeping out of my scalp and running in great gray blobs down my neck, into my ears, and over my face.
Maya Angelou, 1984
Nothing so frightens me as writing, but nothing so satisfies me. It's like a swimmer in the English Channel: you face the stingrays and waves and cold and grease, and finally you reach the other shore, and you put your foot on the ground—Aaaahhhh!
Maya Angelou, 1989
Evidence suggests that Angelou was partially descended from the Mende people of West Africa. A 2008 PBS documentary found that Angelou's maternal great-grandmother Mary Lee, who had been emancipated after the Civil War, became pregnant by her former white owner, John Savin. Savin forced Lee to sign a false statement accusing another man of being the father of her child. After indicting Savin for forcing Lee to commit perjury, and despite discovering that Savin was the father, a grand jury found him not guilty. Lee was sent to the Clinton County poorhouse in Missouri with her daughter, Marguerite Baxter, who became Angelou's grandmother. Angelou described Lee as "that poor little Black girl, physically and mentally bruised."
The details of Angelou's life described in her six autobiographies and in numerous interviews, speeches, and articles tend to be inconsistent. Critic Mary Jane Lupton has explained that when Angelou has spoken about her life, she has done so eloquently but informally and "with no time chart in front of her". For example, she has been married at least twice, but has never clarified the number of times she has been married, "for fear of sounding frivolous"; according to her autobiographies and to Gillespie, she married Tosh Angelos in 1951 and Paul du Feu in 1973, and began her relationship with Vusumzi Make in 1961, but never formally married him. Angelou has one son Guy, whose birth was described in her first autobiography, one grandson, and two young great-grandchildren, and according to Gillespie, a large group of friends and extended family. Angelou's mother Vivian Baxter and brother Bailey Johnson, Jr., both of whom were important figures in her life and her books, have died; her mother in 1991 and her brother in 2000 after a series of strokes. In 1981, the mother of her son Guy's child disappeared with him; it took eight years to find Angelou's grandson.
According to Gillespie, it has been Angelou's preference that she be called "Dr. Angelou" by people outside of her family and close friends. As of 2008, she owned two homes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one in Harlem, full of her "growing library" of books she has collected throughout her life, artwork collected over the span of many decades, and well-stocked kitchens. According to Gillespie, she hosted several celebrations per year at her main residence in Winston-Salem, including Thanksgiving; "her skill in the kitchen is the stuff of legend—from haute cuisine to down-home comfort food". She combined her cooking and writing skills in her 2004 book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, which featured recipes she learned from her grandmother and mother, connected with stories.
Beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou has used the same "writing ritual" for many years. She would wake early in the morning and check into a hotel room, where the staff was instructed to remove any pictures from the walls. She would write on legal pads while lying on the bed, with only a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards to play solitaire, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible, and would leave by the early afternoon. She would average 10–12 pages of written material a day, which she edited down to three or four pages in the evening. Angelou went through this process to "enchant" herself, and as she has said in a 1989 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, "relive the agony, the anguish, the Sturm und Drang." She placed herself back in the time she wrote about, even traumatic experiences like her rape in Caged Bird, in order to "tell the human truth" about her life. Angelou has stated that she played cards in order to get to that place of enchantment, in order to access her memories more effectively. She has stated, "It may take an hour to get into it, but once I'm in it—ha! It's so delicious!" She did not find the process cathartic; rather, she has found relief in "telling the truth".
Angelou has written a total of six autobiographies. According to scholar Mary Jane Lupton, Angelou's third autobiography Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas marked the first time a well-known African American autobiographer had written a third volume about her life. Her books "stretch over time and place", from Arkansas to Africa and back to the U.S., and take place from the beginnings of World War II to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Critics have tended to judge Angelou's subsequent autobiographies "in light of the first", with Caged Bird receiving the highest praise. Angelou has written five collections of essays, which writer Hilton Als called her "wisdom books" and "homilies strung together with autobiographical texts". Angelou has used the same editor throughout her writing career, Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, who retired in 2011 and has been called "one of publishing's hall of fame editors." Angelou has said regarding Loomis: "We have a relationship that's kind of famous among publishers".
All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.
Angelou's long and extensive career also includes poetry, plays, screenplays for television and film, directing, acting, and public speaking. She is a prolific writer of poetry; her volume Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and she was chosen by President Bill Clinton to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" during his inauguration in 1993.
Angelou's successful acting career has included roles in numerous plays, films, and television programs, including her appearance in the television mini-series Roots in 1977. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia (1972), was the first original script by a Black woman to be produced and she was the first African American woman to direct a major motion picture, Down in the Delta, in 1998. Since the 1990s, Angelou has actively participated in the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 2008, Angelou wrote poetry for and narrated the M. K. Asante, Jr. film The Black Candle.
Chronology of autobiographies
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969): Up to 1944 (age 17)
Gather Together in My Name (1974): 1944–1948
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976): 1949–1955
The Heart of a Woman (1981): 1957–1962
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986): 1962–1965
A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002): 1965–1968
Reception and legacy
When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. According to scholar Hilton Als, up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters in the literature they wrote. Scholar John McWhorter agreed, seeing Angelou's works, which he called "tracts", as "apologetic writing". He placed Angelou in the tradition of African-American literature as a defense of Black culture, which he called "a literary manifestation of the imperative that reigned in the black scholarship of the period". Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description", argued that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent not only for other black women writers, but for African American autobiography as a whole. Als said that Caged Bird marked one of the first times that a Black autobiographer could, as Als put it, "write about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense". Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou became recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. It made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer", and "a major autobiographical voice of the time". As writer Gary Younge said, "Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou's life literally is her work".
Author Hilton Als said that although Caged Bird was an important contribution to the increase of black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributed its success less to its originality than with "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist", or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Als also claimed that Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, has freed many other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world". Angelou critic Joanne M. Braxton stated that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era.
Reviewer Elsie B. Washington, most likely due to President Clinton's choice of Angelou to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at his 1993 inauguration, has called Angelou "the black woman's poet laureate". Sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300–600% the week after Angelou's recitation. Bantam Books had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and published the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase. Angelou has famously said, in response to criticism regarding using the details of her life in her work, "I agree with Balzac and 19th-century writers, black and white, who say, 'I write for money'".
Angelou's books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, causing their removal from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to Caged Bird's depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence. Some have been critical of the book's sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions. Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 and sixth on the ALA's 2000–2009 list.
Awards and honors
For her work, Angelou has been honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors have included a National Book Award nomination for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. In 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Random House, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List. She has served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou has been awarded over thirty honorary degrees.
Uses in education
Angelou's autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teacher education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has trained teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. According to Glazier, Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, have led readers of Angelou's autobiographies unsure of what she "left out" and how they should respond to the events Angelou described. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism has forced white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, readers have tended to react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when they enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography".
Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener argued that Angelou's book has provided a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like have Maya faced and how communities have helped children succeed as Angelou did. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He found the book a "highly effective" tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.
Style and genre in autobiographies
Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction. As feminist scholar Maria Lauret has stated, Angelou has made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre. Scholar Mary Jane Lupton has argued that all of Angelou's autobiographies conform to the genre's standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme. Angelou has recognized that there are fictional aspects to her books; Lupton agreed, stating that Angelou has tended to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth", which has paralleled the conventions of much of African-American autobiography written during the abolitionist period of U.S. history, when as both Lupton and African-American scholar Crispin Sartwell put it, the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection. Scholar Lyman B. Hagen has placed Angelou in the long tradition of African-American autobiography, but claimed that Angelou has created a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form.
According to African American literature scholar Pierre A. Walker, the challenge for much of the history of African-American literature was that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature before they could accomplish their political goals, which was why Angelou's editor Robert Loomis was able to dare her into writing Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered "high art". Angelou has acknowledged that she has followed the slave narrative tradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'". Scholar John McWhorter called Angelou's books "tracts" that defended African-American culture and fought against negative stereotypes. According to McWhorter, Angelou structured her books, which to him seemed to be written more for children than for adults, to support her defense of Black culture. McWhorter saw Angelou as she depicted herself in her autobiographies "as a kind of stand-in figure for the Black American in Troubled Times". Although McWhorter saw Angelou's works as dated, he recognized that "she has helped to pave the way for contemporary black writers who are able to enjoy the luxury of being merely individuals, no longer representatives of the race, only themselves. Scholar Lynn Z. Bloom has compared Angelou's works to the writings of Frederick Douglass, stating that both fulfilled the same purpose: to describe Black culture and to interpret it for their wider, white audiences.
According to scholar Sondra O'Neale, whereas Angelou's poetry could be placed within the African-American oral tradition, her prose "follows classic technique in nonpoetic Western forms". O'Neale stated that although Angelou avoided a "monolithic Black language", she accomplished, through direct dialogue, what O'Neale called a "more expected ghetto expressiveness". McWhorter found both the language Angelou used in her autobiographies and the people she depicted unrealistic, resulting in a separation between her and her audience. As McWhorter stated, "I have never read autobiographical writing where I had such a hard time summoning a sense of how the subject talks, or a sense of who the subject really is". McWhorter asserted, for example, that Angelou's depiction of key figures like herself, her son Guy, and mother Vivian did not speak as one would expect, and that their speech was "cleaned up". Guy, for example, represented the young Black male, while Vivian represented the idealized mother figure. The stiff language Angelou used, both in her text and in the language of her subjects, was intended to prove that Blacks were able to competently use standard English.
McWhorter recognized that much of the reason for Angelou's style was the "apologetic" nature of her writing. When Angelou wrote Caged Bird at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature at the time was "organic unity", and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criteria. The events in her books were episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements did not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they were placed to emphasize the themes of her books, which include racism, identity, family, and travel. English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has asserted that "Angelou's poetry and prose are similar". They both relied on her "direct voice", which alternated steady rhythms with syncopated patterns and used similes and metaphors (e.g., the caged bird). According to Hagen, Angelou's works have been influenced by both conventional literary and the oral traditions of the African-American community. For example, she referenced over 100 literary characters throughout her books and poetry. In addition, she used the elements of blues music, including the act of testimony when speaking of one's life and struggles, ironic understatement, and the use of natural metaphors, rhythms, and intonations. Angelou, instead of depending upon plot, used personal and historical events to shape her books.
Although Angelou considered herself a playwright and poet when her editor Robert Loomis challenged her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she is best known for her autobiographies. According to Lupton, many of Angelou's readers identify her as a poet first and an autobiographer second. Reviewer Elsie B. Washington has called her "the black woman's poet laureate", and has called Angelou's poetry the anthems of African Americans. Angelou has experienced similar success as a poet as she did as an autobiographer. She began, early in her writing career, of alternating the publication of an autobiography and a volume of poetry. Her first volume of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie, published in 1971 shortly after I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became a best-seller, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Critics have stated that Angelou's poetry evokes the African-American oral tradition as exemplified by King.
Angelou's most famous poem was "On the Pulse of Morning", which she recited at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Lupton has argued that "Angelou's ultimate greatness will be attributed" to the poem, and that Angelou's "theatrical" performance of it, using skills she learned as an actor and speaker, marked a return to the African-American oral tradition of speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Angelou delivered what Richard Long called her "second 'public' poem", entitled "A Brave and Startling Truth", which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. Also in 1995, she was chosen to recite one of her poems at the Million Man March. In 2009, Angelou wrote "We Had Him", a poem about Michael Jackson, which was read by Queen Latifah at his funeral.
As Gillespie has stated, Angelou had "fallen in love with poetry in Stamps, Arkansas". After her rape at the age of eight, she memorized and studied great works of literature, including poetry, and according to Caged Bird, her friend Mrs. Flowers encouraged her to recite them, which helped bring her out of her muteness. Gillespie has also stated that Angelou's poems "reflect the richness and subtlety of Black speech and sensibilities" and were meant to be read aloud. Angelou has supported Gillespie, telling an interviewer in 1983 that she wrote poetry so that it would be read aloud. Critic Harold Bloom had compared Angelou's poetry to musical forms such as country music and ballads, and has characterized her poems as having a social rather than aesthetic function, "particularly in an era totally dominated by visual media".
Scholar Zofia Burr has connected Angelou's "failure to impress professional poetry critics" to both the public nature of many of her poems and to Angelou's popular success, and to critics' preferences for poetry as a written form rather than a verbal performed one. Bloom has agreed, stating that Angelou's acclaim has been public rather than critical. Critic James Finn Cotter, in his review of Angelou's 1976 volume of poetry Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, called it an "unfortunate example of the dangers of success". Critic John Alfred Avant, despite the fact that the volume was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, stated that Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie "isn't accomplished, not by any means".
Scholar Joanne Braxton has asserted that "Angelou's audience, composed largely of women and blacks, isn't really affected by what white and/or male critics of the dominant literary tradition have to say about her work. This audience does not read literary critics; it does read Maya Angelou". Burr has countered Angelou's critics by condemning them for not taking into account Angelou's larger purposes in her writing: "to be representative rather than individual, authoritative rather than confessional". Bloom has called Angelou's poetry "popular poetry" and states that it "makes no formal or cognitive demands upon the reader".