Maya Angelou's quest for her self

Term Paper, 2004

11 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Maya Angelou’s Autobiographies

2. In how far is Angelou's style influenced by the quest for her self?
2.1. Angelou’s style and her African-American self
2.2. Angelou’s style and her female self

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

1.1. Maya Angelou’s Autobiography

Maya Angelou’s autobiography consists of six volumes. Born in 1928, she started writing down the story of her life in 1968. Robert Loomis, an editor at Random House, had asked her several times to write an autobiography, but she never agreed because she thought it was too difficult. He decided to trick her into writing by telling her: “I must say you may be right not to attempt an autobiography, because it is nearly impossible to write autobiography as literature. Almost impossible” (p.1165, ll.14ff.[1]).

Maya Angelou could not resist this challenge and started writing the first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings[2], that tells the reader about her childhood in segregated Arkansas, St Louis and San Francisco and the birth of her son Guy.

The second volume, published in 1974, is called Gather together in my name[3]. It deals with Maya’s experiences as a young mother who struggles for survival after World War II.

Only two years later, in the third part, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas[4], the start of her career as a singer touring Europe with Porgy & Bess is described .

In The Heart of a Woman, the fourth volume of her autobiography, 1981, Maya Angelou remembers how she started writing in New York where she worked for the NAACP[5] in black politics. It also contains an account of her marriage with the African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make she followed to Africa.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes[6] is the title of the fifth part, published in 1986: Maya is looking for her ancestors in Ghana, but notices that she does not belong there either.

In 2002 the last volume (so far) is finished: A Song Flung Up to Heaven deals with the situation in the USA around Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s assassinations and ends with the moment Maya starts writing her autobiography.

2. In how far is Angelou's style influenced by the quest for her self?

Maya Angelou’s autobiography, like many other autobiographies, is a record of her quest for her self. Her quest leads her to all kinds of places, from America to the European metropolises, to Africa and back again, where she meets people of all backgrounds.

Writing down her life is a serious task for Angelou. In an interview with Don Swaim[7] she says:

Since I have chosen to be an autobiographer, mainly my works are autobiographical and poetical. And since I have made that decision to use those two media I would be hypocritical and even worse and cowardly not to be as open as possible. [ . . . ] So what I do is make selection about what I will tell. [ . . . ] I want to tell the truth as honestly and openly as possible and poetically as possible. I just don’t think that anybody has to tell everything she or he knows.

2.1. Angelou’s style and her African-American self

Since Angelou has decided to write her autobiography as literature and in a poetical way, style inevitably plays an important part in it. This is why I put up the thesis that the style and arrangement of Maya Angelou’s autobiography develops around her quest for her self from the start.

The autobiography begins in the middle of an identity crisis: the protagonist, Marguerite Johnson, has to recite a poem at a church gathering but cannot remember the words. Still, in this situation she does not think about her reasons for failing, but about her wish to be white. This introduces us to her inner conflict of being black.

I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. [ . . . ] I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil. (p.7, ll.19ff.)

The first chapters, when Marguerite is very young and there are not many memories of that time, is a collection of facts that present the surroundings of her childhood and give a background to her story. They begin with the formulaic words “When I was three and Bailey four” (p.9, ll.23).


[1] All quotations, if not marked otherwise, have been taken from: Maya Angelou. The Complete Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou. 2004.

[2] This volume will also be referred to as Caged Bird in this paper.

[3] This volume will also be referred to as Gather Together in this paper.

[4] This volume will also be referred to as Singin’ and Swingin’ in this paper.

[5] NAACP is the abbreviation for National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. The association fights for the equality of (civil) rights for minority groups and acts against racial prejudice and discrimination.

[6] This volume will also be referred to as All God’s Children in this paper.

[7] Audio interview for CBS Radio, after the publication of All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes in 1987. (my transcription)

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Maya Angelou's quest for her self
University of Siegen
To Paint the Self in Black and White: American Autobiography
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
519 KB
Maya, Angelou, Paint, Self, Black, White, American, Autobiography
Quote paper
BA, MA Kathrin Gerbe (Author), 2004, Maya Angelou's quest for her self, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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