Maya Angelou Fight Against Racial Discrimination

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Post-colonial literature is not only interested in issues regarding power and dominance but also freedom and empowerment, Angelou manages to comment on these issues through her expressive poetry, which is manipulated to support cultural difference and diversity. Angelou’s poetry gives us insight into the marginalization of African Americans and the ways in which this racial bigotry prevents them from openly celebrating their cultural hybridity. Angelou attempts to demonstrate how, through the years of absolute anguish, it is time for the colonized to honor their history by accepting and celebrating their culture, which will eventually aid them in overpowering their oppressors.

Angelou’s poetry gives her readers a sense of hope as she voices and empowers the experiences of the colonized in order to not only celebrate their cultural hybridity but also encourage her readers to fight against oppression. Through ‘Still I Rise’, not only does she successfully give a voice and appreciation to the traumatic experiences of the colonized by articulating and even celebrating their cultural identities, but she also manages to convey the message of hope by explicitly referring to herself as “the dream and the hope of the slave” Through this metaphor, Angelou develops a tribute to the African American history for all that they have been through; discrimination in all aspects of their lives, slavery, racism and segregation. Hence, Angelou visions herself as their “hope” which will considerably aid them in overpowering the discrimination and racial prejudice immorally imposed on them. Notably, Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ also expresses hope through the meaningful metaphor “I am a black ocean leaping and wide/welling and swelling I bear in the tide”, suggesting that, like the ocean, Angelou is evermoving; nothing can stop her and just like the ocean her reach is broad, growing and moving, bringing something new with each wave. This essentially points out how Angelou never stopped challenging the oppression which is forced upon the colonized. Angelou herself was part of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power Movement, which reinforces greater opportunities for African American empowerment and creativity. Ultimately this allowed Angelou’s poetry to begin to successfully represent a powerful movement of the black race that will not apologize for its existence. This evokes a strong sense of hope for the readers as it allows them to celebrate their own identity and give voice to their own experiences by seeing ‘otherness’ as a source of energy and potential change.

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Angelou’s Collected Poems seeks to celebrate cultural identity by addressing historical experiences which give voice to the colonized. In the poem ‘Africa’, Angelou utilizes the extended metaphor of a woman to describe Africa in order to create greater sympathy for the deep and long-lasting plight of the African people. The readers are more able to sympathize and empathize with a fellow human being as the suffering is more tangible and more outrageous when a specific face is in the midst of it. Therefore, the personification “deserts her hair, golden her feet”, not only reminds the readers of the beautiful qualities of the continent, but it also essentially points out how these qualities have been undermined through the years of slavery and segregation caused by the “rime white and cold brigands”. Angelou suggestively plays on the imagery of “white” in order to criticize the European Powers who colonized Africa, thus commenting on the complex relationships between the colonizers and the colonized and protesting against the subsequent oppression.

By directly stating that “her history [was] slain” Angelou emphasizes that the South of America has become a powerfully evocative metaphor for the history of racial bigotry, social inequality, and brutal inhumanity, which has devalued African heritage and culture, yet it is now “striding” and “rising” according to Angelou. This is due to the fact that Angelou encourages her readers to “remember her pain” and “remember the losses” as remembering and embracing the history is not only necessary to help the continent rise but the people living in America whose heritage originates from Africa. The symbolism throughout the collection of “rising” clearly inspires her readers to celebrate their identity by acknowledging and celebrating their strength at having survived such brutal experiences. Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ also precisely notes the “huts of history’s shame” and the “past that’s rooted in pain” as she tries to reveal how out of a history of pain, humiliation, and sorrow, with the determination and will, there is nothing that can stop her and others who have been colonized from rising. The empowering tone used when repeating “I rise” allows the readers to find their voices, attempt to assert their own visions, and reclaim their experiences and histories.

Likewise, “the caged bird [who] sings of freedom” symbolizes the tortured slaves whose only escape from the physical and mental torment was to put their dreams about being free into their singing. Significantly, songs were passed down from generation to generation throughout slavery as the enslaved people used traditional, tribal music as a way to cope and express themselves, while working on the plantations. Angelou not only meaningfully comments on the history of slavery in ‘Caged Bird’ but also in her other works such as her autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, written to illustrate how the strength of character and love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. Angelou continually uses the symbol of the caged bird in many of her works to show the struggles and the confinement of the African Americans during the time when they were forced into slavery and absolute racial segregation. Ultimately, Angelou seeks to discard the confinements in which the colonized are placed by giving voice to their history allowing them to openly celebrate their ‘cultural polyvalency’ (P.Barry, 2002) therefore challenging the labels of “other”,” different” and “lesser.

Angelou’s Collected Poems protests against racial discrimination in the means of giving the colonized a voice to overcome the oppression which they have experienced. According to Michael Banton, “race is the concept that has been the basis of discrimination and disempowerment”, making it difficult for African Americans to be able to not only accept their cultural identity but to also accept themselves for who they are. Angelou’s poetry gives the colonized purpose, to value their culture and their identity as well as fight back against the discrimination forced upon them due to their race.

This is clearly demonstrated in Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, the poem begins with giving us an insight into the injustice history has done to the African people and how their image has been massively manipulated because of their race. The poem continues with the simile “you may tread me in the dirt but still, like the dust, I rise” highlighting how the downtrodden will rise and reclaim their liberty and their identities. The defiant tone used by Angelou in these lines intensifies her disapproval of the marginalization towards African Americans as she begins to empower her readers to ‘rise’ above the labels of “other” and “lesser”. Similar to the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King, the repetition of ‘i rise’ throughout the poem lays clear emphasis on the dream of sharing the status of equality with the Americans, which begins to remind the readers of their culture, as Angelou’s poetry reminds them of a highly influential African American figure.

The “caged bird” is also a representation of Angelou’s own confinement within the American society, this is clearly indicated by the metaphor “it’s wings are clipped and feet are tied”, revealing Angelou’s personal restrictions within the American society as an African American woman. Nonetheless, she is still urging her readers to protest against this imprisonment which has emerged from the extreme racial prejudice toward the Africans. As a black activist who was writing during the civil rights era and fought for the desegregation of the African Americans, Angelou is continually insisting on fighting the oppression, embracing and giving a voice to the culture which will eventually unveil their identity and set them free from their oppressors.

Angelou also objects against the racial discrimination towards the blacks in ‘Africa’ as she criticizes the ‘brigands’ who “took her young daughters and sold her strong sons”. The personification undoubtedly comments on the colonization of Africa, as Angelou indicates how the intruders attacked and raped Africa’s women as well as taken its men to sell in the slave trade, in the means of taking over the continent. Noting the fact that the initial abcbdeae rhyme scheme and lines made up of four beats (which represent the peace and steady life of Africa), swiftly dissolve as soon as Angelou presents the colonization of the continent and the violence which came alongside it. It is fundamentally emphasized, specifically at the end of the poem when the continent is ‘striding’, that “Angelou’s poetry shows how her culture, carrying a history of traumatic violence through generations, led the destruction of the non-white culture and history through colonization.”

Ultimately, Angelou’s poetry enforces the colonized the expostulate against racial segregation and wholeheartedly expose and be proud of their cultural difference. 


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