Presentation of the problem of racial and gender equality in Maya Angelou's poetry

Term Paper, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Background information on Maya Angelou
1.2. Social and political context of the Civil Rights Movement

2. The problem of racial and gender equality in Maya Angelou’s poetry
2.1. Integration of the topic “Race” into Angelou’s work
2.2. Presentation of the topic “equality” in Angelou’s poetry
2.2.1. Analysis of “Equality”
2.2.2. Analysis of “Caged bird”

3. Conclusion



1. Introduction

1.1. Background information on Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928. As an African-American she grew up with segregation.

Her (ethnic) origin and personal experience strongly influence her conception of art and writing. Partly for that reason her central topics are racism and the emancipation of black women in the USA. But her fight against the injustice of discrimination is not restricted on poetry. She worked at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which she was called to as a Northeaster Regional Coordinator by Martin Luther King Jr.

She is popular for her writings and her commitment in the Civil Rights Movement; as an actress, producer and director. Furthermore she has taught on several colleges. She has lived in Africa, Europe and America and was one of the first Black women who became successful artists. Her most famous work is her five-volume autobiography, starting with “I know why the caged bird sings” which gives an account of her childhood.

Her writing is influenced by the works of Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance[1] like James Weldon Johnson and the 19th century like Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Further inspiration she gets from William Shakespeare’s writing.

1.2. Social and political context of the Civil Rights Movement

The first Blacks in America had been brought over as slaves from Africa in the 17th century and had to work in the fields and factories of the Whites.

When slavery was abolished in 1865, African-American men got the citizenship of the USA (1868) and even the right to vote (1870). Their children were allowed to go to school. In the same time, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were formed by Whites opposed to the freedom of the Blacks in order to threaten and intimidate them. Already twenty years later the rights granted to the Blacks were restricted by a new system of laws, which were later known as “Jim Crow laws”. These laws regulated racial discrimination, mostly in the South of the USA. They were a concept of legal segregation and intended among other things separate schools, public conveniences, benches, train and restaurant seating for Blacks and Whites. Marriage between partners of different races was forbidden. These laws were valid until the 1960s.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), was founded in 1909. It consisted of white and coloured Americans and organised non-violent protests and sit-ins in order to achieve political and social rights for Blacks. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the African-Americans hope for a better future and became leader of the movement. His primary aims were the vote for all Blacks, desegregation, a better educational system and housing, as the Blacks in the cities mostly lived in ghettos. The base to achieve this aims was a new self-confidence and identity drawn from African heritage and history. It was in this time, that the Black Americans started proudly calling themselves “African-Americans” or “Afro-Americans”.

A first step towards equality was made in 1957 by a court decision that declared segregation in public schools unjust. A further step was taken when the Congress created a Commission on Civil Rights in the same year. In 1960, federal mediators were appointed to help the Blacks with registering for and voting in elections. But these decisions did not change the minds of the people, who had lived in segregated society for a long time.

Especially between 1957 and 1965 the Civil Rights Movement was active and parallel to the NAACP militant movements like the Black Panther Party and the Black Muslims were established. They aimed at achieving independence from the Whites going along with a radical racist attitude.

After the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that prohibited discrimination in employment and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was to grant a certain quota of ethnic minorities in all American companies, life of the African-Americans still did not change much. Even today, discrimination is still an issue.

2. The problem of racial and gender equality in Maya Angelou’s poetry

2.1. Integration of the topic “Race” into Angelou’s work

As Maya Angelou is an African-American writer, it seems natural that her people and their position in American society play an important part in her works. Much of her writing is based on personal experience, like her autobiography.

Angelou’s five-volume autobiography portrays many different chapters in her life, starting from her childhood in the South of the USA, her time as a young single parent in San Francisco, her career in show business in Europe and her search for her roots in Africa. Of course, she cannot avoid picking up the topic of race and her poetry is said to be continuation of the oral tradition of African narratives.

So while her five-volume autobiography mainly deals with the problem “what it means to be Black and female in America” (Cudjoe; p.21, ll.24f.), Angelou chooses a bigger variety of topics in her poetry collections that is not restricted to an African-American point of view.

Her first collection of poems “Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water ‘Fore I Die” (1971) deals with the pain of being African-American in white America. The second collection, “Oh, Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well” (1975) picks up several aspects of life: love and memory, but also racial confrontation in the streets. “Oh Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing” (1983) is written retrospectively, depicting memories from the past, dreams and the pursuit of freedom. There is a development to be noticed in the collections, as the fourth one “And Still I Rise” (1978) is a portrayal of courage, Black pride and survival. “I Shall Not Be Moved” (1990) is the climax of the development, showing the effort of everyone, male or female, to be free. Angelou’s latest collection “On the Pulse of the Morning” (1993) is named after a poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration.

In spite of this diversity of topics, the issue of racial equality is always in the subconscious. Writing about that topic shows Angelou’s position in the struggle for civil rights. She is aware that there have to be changes, but she does not want to achieve them using violence. She sees no solution in violence and probably she believes that words can be more powerful than physical means. Her writing is a peaceful way of fighting.

2.2. Presentation of the topic “equality” in Angelou’s poetry

2.2.1. Analysis of “Equality”

“Equality” is one of Angelou’s later poems and was published in the volume “I Shall Not Be Moved” in 1990. As the title already implies it deals with equality, racial equality as well as gender equality, but is quite contrasting in its presentation.

The poem seems to be divided by an invisible line drawn by the lyrical I that differs strongly between “you” and “I”. My thesis is that the pronoun “I” represents the African-American and the pronoun “you” the white population of the USA. Both of them are weighed up to each other in this poem, loosely connected by cross rhyming of the first and third verse of every stanza.


[1] Harlem Renaissance: Literary movement in the 1920s. The writers used folk material and forms like e.g. spirituals, blues and ballads in their works. These were meant to be source of black identity. The artist should not wish to be white, but realize that not only black culture but also he is beautiful.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Presentation of the problem of racial and gender equality in Maya Angelou's poetry
University of Siegen
American Poetry
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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529 KB
Maya, Angelou, American, Poetry, gender, equality
Quote paper
BA, MA Kathrin Gerbe (Author), 2004, Presentation of the problem of racial and gender equality in Maya Angelou's poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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