By Oluwafunmilayo Iyanda
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in the United States of America on April 4, 1928. She enjoyed a broad and distinguished career both inside and outside the literary realm.
The world-acclaimed poet, storyteller, activist, and autobiographer was on Wednesday celebrated with a Google doodle and honoured on her posthumous 90th birthday through her poetics.
The Mothering Blackness
This poem tells the story of a girl running back to “the mothering blackness.” Like many of Angelou’s poems, The Mothering Blackness shows a firm root in African American history in its presentation as a narrative reminiscent of the work songs sung by slaves.
Using a steady “abab” rhyme scheme and seven-syllable line, Angelou in this poem spoke about the everyday hardships of many in the neighbourhood of Harlem. Referencing children’s popular pastime game of hopscotch, Angelou mimics a common playgroup song, One, two, buckle my shoe, to describe the struggle for survival in Harlem in a rhythmic activity.
Dedicated to her brother, Kin is presented as a dramatic monologue of short unrhymed lines which speak of familial closeness, of shared memories and suffering that come with being part of a group.
Written in the 1970s toward the end of the Black Arts Movement, Phenomenal Woman is a poem that celebrates black beauty and female strength. It is a poem of power that confronts traditional white structures of “fashion models” and “pretty women”. It is one of Angelou’s most famous poems.
California Prodigal depicts the tension between the apathy of history and the vitality of the human spirit. Replicated as a battle between the sun and the mountains, this struggle becomes silent and daily, much like the day-to-day conflicts that Civil Rights activists encountered. The final image — a sun at the base of a mountain — is hopeful, suggesting that the sun will continue to rise, at least until it goes down for the day and the battle begins anew.
A Plagued Journey
The theme of struggle and submission reoccurs throughout A Plagued Journey as portrayed in the narrator’s helplessness to respond in any way besides submission.
This poem serves as Angelou’s signature image as originated from one of Angelou’s influences in the person of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a popular early-20th-century African American writer. In revising Dunbar’s image of Sympathy as a caged bird which symbolised a chained slave beating his bruised and bloody wings; Angelou’s Sympathy was portrayed as a free bird beside a caged bird.
On the Pulse of Morning
This poem depicts a country on the brink of change. Reading On the Pulse of Morning at President Clinton’s first inauguration made Angelou the first woman and African American to do so. In this poem, Angelou calls for peace, harmony, and social justice for all who are marginalised.