Black Feminism In The Poetry Of Maya Angelou

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Abstract

This research paper aims at finding out the features of a black female as portrayed in Maya Angelou’s poems. This research has utilized qualitative and analytical method as the research contains no numerical data. The researcher has selected three poems of Maya Angelou which are ‘Still I Rise’, ‘Caged Bird’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman’. This research has been conducted based on black feminist theory and focused upon words, lines and stanzas and it explores the argument in literature studies particularly Black Feminism self-esteem. Hence, it can further urge others to develop research on African-American females. The analysis has described the different views of Black women present in Maya Angelou’s poems.

The first poem ‘Still I Rise’, Maya Angelou depicts black female as a captain of the movement and challenges the notion of society about black people.

The second poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’, Maya Angelou explains ideal beauty that beauty is not, having a slim smart body, beautiful face and thin lip. She argues that a black woman can become a phenomenal woman by means of her confidence and personality and by being prideful of herself as a black woman.

The third poem ‘Caged Bird’, Maya Angelou shows the miserable plight of the black woman due to traditions. Maya Angelou optimistically raises her voice and feels that soon black people will acquire liberty. This research concludes that Maya Angelou is advocating themes of optimism and hope in all mentioned poems and she is a brave black woman.

Keywords: Maya Angelou, black feminism, hope and optimism, identity, brave woman

Introduction

The word feminism is derived from Latin word ‘femina’ means woman. The goal and belief of feminism is to deliver or to ponder upon the equal rights, power and opportunity as men enjoy. It is basically a movement of supporting women through which feminists speak, write and act on women’s problems for the development. Feminism has multiple types that describe the effort of women for their survival in this world. Also, they speak on the behalf of women that are exploited by male dominant society (Asseffie, 2012).

Black feminism is a kind of feminism that discusses the struggle of black women. Black feminism refers that class oppression, racism and sexism are completely bound together (Collins, 2000). Often this includes other women of different colour however Black women have a double disadvantage; the first disadvantage is that they are black and they are susceptible to racial discrimination and the second disadvantage is that they are females, meaning they are also susceptible to abuse or exploitation from men (Collins 2015).

Black women out of black race and sex, have experienced double oppression and segregation. They are required to provide extra power in order to make progress from weird and harsh circumstances present with white men dominant society. That is reason behind the fact that black women protesters or advocates say womanism and feminism are wholly different terms. This is called as intersectionality which discussed the class, gender and race (Crenshaw, 2017). Black feminism was popular in the United States, which has a cruel history of racial discrimination and explains the focus upon racial factors. Thus, Blacks are a minority in the US and racism is a key factor of black feminism.

Maya Angelou is an Afro-American writer, civil rights activist, poetess, an educator, dramatist, actress, producer, historian, film maker, dancer and most popular & influential voice of America. She wrote a number of poems on injustice and biased treatment of African-American in USA. Most poems by Maya Angelou talk about the problems concerning racism, individuality and gender discrimination. Maya Angelou was the woman who used feministic approach in her poems which expressed the racial segregation and discrimination and male dominancy. This is the reason of this research used to analyze the poetry of Maya Angelou.

Significance of Study

This research strengthens the argument in literary studies particularly, Black Feminism self-esteem. Therefore, it can further make others enable to organize and conduct research on African-American females.

Statement of the Problem

Gender and race discrimination are the most influential and notable parts of literature. There is little work done on black feminism approach in English poetry especially within Maya Angelou’s work. It is a matter of huge concern in discrimination toward blacks specially females in America. It focuses on the most critical influence of society. Postmodern work by American poet Maya Angelou describes the black feminism of her society in a way to ensure it as lovable female.

Research Objectives

In a style and way of comforting with the problem of the study, the objective of the study is to explore the portrayal of black woman as depicted by Maya Angelou in her poems.

Research Question

This research attempts to answer the following question

How has the image of black woman been depicted in the poems by Maya Angelou?

Delimitation of Research

Black feminism approach as represented by Maya Angelou through poems in which she describes the miserable plight of black females within American society. This research is delimited to only three poems of Maya Angelou: ‘Phenomenal Woman’, ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Caged Bird’.

Literature Review

Black Feminism

‘Experiences of Marginalized Women: I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings in Focus’ black feminism is basically a movement of supporting women through which feminists speak, write and act on women’s problems for the development. Feminism has multiple types that describe the effort of women for their survival in this world. Also, they speak on the behalf of women that are exploited by male dominant society (Asseffie, 2012). Feminism continues to focus on the division of feminist on the behalf of nationality, race and religion.

‘Canary Petunias in Bloom: Black Feminism in Poetry of Alice Walker and Rita Dove’ describes that White feminists only focus on the white women issue and they overlook the effort of black women like ‘Afro-American’ women. Dreserova (2006)

In ‘Alice Walkr’s Womanism: Perspectives Past and Present’ says that struggles of black women for her right are altogether rejected to advocate by white women. After being acknowledged by the fact, they build foundations of a movement, which is called ‘Black Feminist movement’.

‘Black feminist thought: Knowledge and the politic of empowerment’ by Collins (2000) defines Black feminism as such type of feminism which ponder upon the struggle of black women. ‘Black feminism’ refers that racism, sexism and class oppression are completely bound together. Often this includes other women of different colour however Black women have a double disadvantage; the first disadvantage is that they are black and they are susceptible to racial discrimination and the second disadvantage is that they are females, meaning they are also susceptible to abuse or exploitation from men (Collins 2015). Black women out of black race and sex, have experienced double oppression and segregation.

They are required to provide extra power in order to make progress from weird and harsh circumstances present with white men dominant society. That is reason behind the fact that black women protesters or advocates say womanism and feminism are wholly different terms. This is called as intersectionality which discussed the class, gender and race (Crenshaw, 2017). Collins (2000) states that the first name of black movement was [black feminism] but many black feminist do not agree on this term ‘feminist’ because according to them, ‘feminism’ term is restricted for white females but not for coloured females. They mention the term womanist and consider that this term refer ‘black women’ or coloured females who are violently effected from discrimination and oppression.

Critical Review of Previous Work

This part of the study details and analyzes the works already done in a chronological order. Jindhou (2005) notes that Angelou poetry is famous and it gives birth to a myth of survival as her poetry continues to play a necessary role in the evolution of myth. Angelou explains the female struggle for freedom and liberty where women pride plays an essenial role where her grandmother remained as a thought of lighthouse in the sea of dismay and chaos. A number of her poems explains the human and their responses according to the culture.

Praseedha (2010) explains the portrayal of women as less important and of low status to men and white women. He says that poems of Angelou, tells us the stories of hardships, race discrimination and disrespect. Maya Angelou, employs religion, struggle, and reproduction to dominate over multiple memories of the cruelest organizations of America. The trade of slave and its insulting effects on the people of the society are narrated through her life.

Paramita (2012) argues that black females in the poems of Maya Angelou are full of confidence because they proud about their looks, accept their physical characteristics, makes it their plus point and represents themselves as confident and powerful women. Maya Angelou gives idea of sexuality of black females that completely differs from the idea of her young age.

EstaBem (2013) explores the notion of a wild woman for Maya Angelou because she states through her poetry the prejudice of gender and inequalities of communities for black females that a white female cannot perceive to understand. Angelou does not accept the society principles and fights against the sexism and racism.

Youshka (2016) argues that Angelou wrote about racial issues from feminism perspective. Angelou challenges the blacks existing society organisation. Angelou represents herself like a captain of movement who opposes harassment and fights for the liberty of coloured people. Angelou shows the tradition in her poetry that represents her voice as black woman that black people will get freedom very soon.

Pelayo (2017) opines that Angelou is no doubt an honest lady as at that time females are afraid of uttering any fact but Angelou in her autobiography describess black women condition during twentieth century through poetry. Maya explains black women position in society and difficulty to struggle for their rights. She has been a symbol and worked hard in her entire life for equality and justice

The works already done in the concerned area mentioned above produces the space for the this research because most probably no considerable and significant work has been done on Maya Angelou’s poems regarding black female ideological thoughts and correlating the results with the critical race theory.

Theoretical Framework

The Postcolonial Feminist Theory is the theoretical and analytical mode that examined women that progressed as a reaction to females or feminism focus exclusively on the getting knowledge by practices (experience) by females in Western society and it also attempt to search or finds account for the method that biasness and prejudice against colour or race and the long term effects of economic, politics and society and custom of colonialism effects on non-white and non-western females in the world of postcolonial.

According to ‘Sara Mills ‘ (2003): feminists believe, colour women are behaved cruelly, harshly and tyrannically and differently from both races (black and white) males and white females and they are treated to individual and organizational, racial, culture and territory intolerance, prejudice and biasness. And they call them ‘alien others’ and ‘Third World Women’. Colour women in USA, usually notice it hard to segregate class difference from race discrimination and gender oppression although they experienced all these things in their lives simultaneously. Colour women in USA recognized that “racial–sexual oppression” is neither only sexual and racial. Colour women in USA required to articulate person’s real class situation that is not only raceless and sexless workers. Whom, sexual and racial oppression is determinant in their working lives significantly.

Feminists also believe that society is prepared or prearranged in such a system that it works, in common, to the advantage of white race people and black males instead of black females. The above discussion does not indicate or point out the equality and the benefits of both black men and white women in the same structure through the system that society is prearranged or planned or prepared, since society also ill-treats and exploits both black men and white women in different manners, nor does it means that black men get part in the persistence or maintenance of the structure of the system, since black men and white women can decide to go up against the cruelty of other groups. However, it also indicates, there is a common divergence or difference in the manner. Black men and white women are behaved as a whole in the system of society that they view themselves and others think about them as gendered beings and females specially black females are viewed as inferior to males and white people, as society behaves with black females ill-mannerly or badly like they are aliens for society and born to serve them as inferior people because society abuse them and discriminate them.

Research Methodology

This research has been conducted by qualitative and analytical method because this research has not numerical data.

Method of data collection: The researcher has selected only three poems of Angelou from “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” which are ‘Still I Rise’, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ and ‘Caged Bird’. After collecting data, the researcher has analyzed poems and supported by particular idea of feminist Sara Mills.

Analysis

Caged Bird Analysis

‘Caged Bird’ Maya Angelou’s one of her master pieces which is very heart touching and thought awakening poem. It was published in 1983. In 1969 Maya Angelou published autobiography of her own with the title of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. Later on, ‘Caged Bird’ poem was added in autobiography. This poem consists of six stanzas and details about freedom but it did not publish. However, “Black Feminist Movement” was the period when this poem published. This poem highlights that black race is facing difficulties due to their skin colour. ‘Caged Bird’ poem does not merely focus on black women, as it can also be read as the domination, prejudice and inequality toward black people of that age.

The poem ‘Caged Bird’ gives the idea about tradition and history of “Black People” in which they were treated pathetically, unequally and unfairness within American dominant white society. This was the reason that black feminist movement was started in 1960 as in that period more black people spread their voice because feminists (female supporters) argued that colour women are behaved harshly, cruelly, brutally and altogether differently from both races (black and white) males and white females and they are behaved with individual and organizational, racial, culture, territory intolerance, prejudice and biasness. They call them ‘alien others’ and ‘Third World Women’ (Mills, 2003). There exists the presence of barriers between races throughout the history. Society was tore into two races, white and black. Whites were considered superior and blacks were depicted as inferior. Bad customs like of slavery and discrimination were existed for more than three hundred years.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

(Angelou,1994, P.14)

The above stated text explains black people attitude that are experiencing race biasness. In discrimination period, blacks were in state of oppression because they face hatred attitude from whites and their opportunities were stole from whites. In the last line of the stanza, Maya Angelou shows that black people are tired from discrimination, segregation, “alien other” and “Third world people”. They know it is necessary to raise their voice and sing for their freedom. This line shows that why “Black feminist movement” take action and black feminist were active because blacks were bound by history and white were given hope and spirit through.

The poem concludes that possible answer could be a white person because due to their colour black are “Caged”. Infinity and opportunities are for whites while these are wrong for colour people.

The…birdsings

with…fearfultrill

ofthingsunknown

but…forstill

and …tuneisheard

on…distanthill

for…caged…sings…freedom..

(Angelou,1994, P.14)

These verses are taken from the last stanza of the poem. Above text clearly explains poem’s meaning and defines the action of ‘Caged Bird’. Coloured skin acts as a barrier or problem for back race. It prevents person’s freedom and treats him like slave. According to white people, feelings and freedom are only for them. In the poem ‘Caged Bird’, poet shows her voice as a black that “Black people” will be free very soon because she believes that bud of freedom, equality and justice is started to blossom between black people.

Phenomenal Woman Analysis

The poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ was published in 1978. This poem is consist of four stanzas. Each stanza has same structure. Maya Angelou published both poems ‘Phenomenal Woman’ and ‘Still I Rise’ at same time. ‘Still I Rise’ poem is about coloured woman, lives along with Whites. While, Maya Angelou through her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’, tries to deliver a message for reader to appraise herself although she is not physically perfect. Her appearance is not like model. It is also written in “Second wave of feminism” that starts from 1960s. In that period more black people raised their voice because feminists (female supporters) believe that colour women are behaved cruelly, harshly and tyrannically and differently from both races (black and white) males and white females and they are treated to individual and organizational, racial, culture and territory intolerance, prejudice and biasness. And they call them ‘alien others’ and ‘Third World Women’ (Mills, 2003).

Colour women of USA were treated badly and have same challenges and problem to live in the in the society of gender and race discrimination because black or colour women are perceived as “Third world women” or aliens. Maya Angelou as a poet, describes in the poem a confident and great woman as a black. Poem reader can understand that every line of the poem describes that Maya Angelou is a proud woman for being black. She says in every stanza that she is ‘Phenomenal Woman’.

I’m awoman

Phenomenally..

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

(Angelou,1994, P.46)

In above lines, the word “Phenomenally” means surprisingly, extraordinary and impressive and Maya Angelou explains that surprisingly, she is black and complete woman. She is complete as well extraordinary woman. In whole poem, Maya Angelou explains her proud of being black. And she is proud at her body’s each part. In this poem, Maya Angelou address to those women who thinks that beauty means having slim, smart body, small hips and thin lips.

Pretty..wonder my..lies..

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I’m cute…built…fashion model’s

(Angelou,1994, P.46)

Above verses show, author delivers message to reader that although she doesn’t have model type slim smart body who can wear fashionable dress but she is confident, strong and brave being black. Her confidence and braveness makes her beautiful and phenomenal woman means a complete woman. Maya Angelou also explains that how history and men see her as a black race in the last stanza:

Men…have wondered

What…see..me.

They…so..much

But..can’t..touch.

My..inner..mystery.

(Angelou,1994, P.46)

Maya Angelou shows in these lines that men try to understand the reason of confidence in black women so that they take such type of extreme action but they cannot understand the reason of confidence. They believe that black women’s majority don’t take any step to change their condition in society. It is difficult for them to believe that only one black woman takes such extreme action against society’s discrimination toward black.

Maya Angelou also describes her innermost beauty by caring others as mother and black woman in the poem through these lines:

It’s…the of my heels,

The…of..hair,,

The…of..Hand,,

The…for..Care..

(Angelou,1994, P.47)

Maya Angelou explains her optimistic point of view as a woman. She shows her confidence as a black woman by saying “It’s in the click of my heels”. Through “the palm of my hand”, Maya Angelou shows her care toward other black women.

Through these texts, the researcher concludes that ‘Phenomenal Woman’ does not mean have beautiful face, slim smart body or good look. It means having proud of being black and become confident & good person.

Still I Rise Analysis

Still I Rise poem was published in 1978 and it is one of the excellent poem of Maya Angelou’s poems. This poem consists of eight stanzas. All stanzas have 4 line structure except last stanza which have 12 lines. This poem is written in abcb rhyming scheme. The poem Still I Rise concerns living of Blacks between Whites people. By get knowledge about the Black feminism, it is written on ‘second waves of feminism. Second wave of Feminism starts from 1960s. In that period more black people raised their voice because feminists (female supporters) believe that colour women are behaved cruelly, harshly and tyrannically and differently from both races (black and white) males and white females and they are treated to individual and organizational, racial, culture and territory intolerance, prejudice and biasness. And they call them ‘alien others’ and ‘Third World Women’ (Mills, 2003).

The poem Still I Rise describes, that author also gets inferiority and biasness and inequality like other colored women, she is behaved harshly and tyrannically and unequally from races males and white females. Black feminism is narrated in this poem because Maya Angelou writes about her effort and struggle to live along ‘Whites’ who keep negative and awful thinking for Black people. Within the poem Still I Rise, poet or speaker shows that she will never give up to rise and will move forward for better life for her and other black women. The poem Still I Rise conveys message from white perspective that white are superior and blacks are inferior. Angelou depicts the exact image of ‘black woman’ in the poem:

Does…sassiness upset you?

Why…you with gloom?

Cause…walk like…oil wells

Pumping..my…room

(Angelou,1994, P.57)

Author puzzles the reader by asking them a question by alluding her own voice as ”sassiness” and she asks the readers that is her confident attitude and impertinent voice upsetting them. She observes that people of her society are ‘beset with gloom’ when she success. She asks the question from the society. Maya Angelou observes that she achieved her aim through her writing, as a woman. ‘Oil wells pumping in my living room’ this line symbolizes author’s life and her success. However, it is going in the next stanza:

Just…moons….like sun,

With…certainty of.tides,

Just..like……springing.high,

Still…rise.

(Angelou,1994, P.57)

Author compares sun and moon to herself because both are affected by tides. And in reality Angelou was affected by the white people. This gave an understanding to reader that she has no other option except to rice up her problems. Society wants to keep her dominate but she rises up and stands against the oppression of the society like tides because it is tide’s nature to respond the moon.

Feminism period was ended after activation of black feminism movement because that was only for the women of whites. In ‘Still I Rise’ poem, Maya Angelou describes the awful and terrible condition of black females in history. Maya Angelou explains as a leader of women, that she will never give up and she will fight against the oppression of the society that she shows in this stanza:

Up..the….past..that’s….in.pain.,

I’m…..black..ocean…..and.wide,

.Welling..and.swelling..in the tide.

.Leaving…nights..terror..fear

I…rise

Into…daybreak….wondrously clear

I..rise

Bringing..gifts..that…ancestors gave,

I am…dream..and…hope of..slave.

I..rise

I..rise

I rise

(Angelou,1994, P.57)

Through using these lines, Maya Angelou gives an introduction of her identity by using metaphor of black ocean for herself and black ocean that holds ‘pain’ and ‘shame’ of her gender and race in her tide. In this stanza, Maya Angelou refers from past and asks the reason of oppression and resented till now. Angelou calls slavery a shame history and she declares that although slavery was rooted in pain but she will not be assumed by the past.

Maya Angelou also exposed that she intends to leave at the back all slavery impacts and domination of history aim, as, it was intimated before. Maya Angelou claims that she will ‘terror and fear’ behind her and she will become rebellious against the pain and oppression ‘Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear’. She doesnot determined to permit the society for hated She doesn’t allow pain that belongs to history of suaveness to stop her from becoming all that she wants to become or fulfill her dream. That’s why, she repeats “I rise’ three times.

Author describes her emotion to endure the life and also shows the encouragement to face the problems because White considers black as minority and Whites underestimate Maya Angelou as black woman and treat her badly. ‘White people’ sometimes injured the felling of Author, like the stanza blow:

You..shoot..with..words,

You..cut..with..eyes,

You..kill..with.hatefulness,

But.still.like air,

I rise

(Angelou,1994, P.57)

This stanza shows the domination of author. But in the last verse of the stanza, she writes ‘But still, like air, I’ll rise’, this line explains her power of survive and strength as a black woman. No issue, what has been done with black people and said to her she will rise as brave and face the situation. In whole poem, Maya Angelou challenges arrangement of existing society for coloured people. Author also represents herself as leader of social change black feminist movement. She faces oppression and rejects standard of gender role as a leader which tries to free the coloured people (men and women). Author also recognizes her strength and value and wants that other people also recognize it.

Conclusion and Findings

Maya Angelou as a black writer, supports herself through her writing. Maya Angelou uses her writing to focuses on “black feminism”. She writes poems and books about black feminism.

This article discusses black feminism, in three poems of Maya Angelou that are ‘Phenomenal Woman’, ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Caged Bird’. Each poem shows different idea of black feminism. Research has also discussed how the image of black woman depicted in these poems. In analyzing these three poems, the researcher uses the critical race theory of Sara Mills that is Feminist Postmodern theory.

Through analysis of every line of the stanza, the researcher finds the answer of the research question. Research finds three type of image depicted in Maya Angelou’s poems. Through first poem ‘Caged Bird’, Maya Angelou shows underdevelopment of black woman due to tradition. As a coloured woman Maya Angelou raises her voice and says that soon, black people will be free. In the second poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’, Maya Angelou describes a standard of beauty that beauty is not having beautiful face and slim smart body and thin lip, short hip. She says that a black woman can be phenomenal woman through her confidence and good personality and proud herself being black woman. In last poem, ‘Still I Rise, Maya Angelou presents black female as a leader of the movement and challenges the society arrangement about black people.

This research shows the discrimination and segregation, ill-treated, biasness and prejudice toward woman in her age. Hence, author presents the theme of hope in all above poems by saying that soon they will be free, black people can be beautiful and hope of equal rights. So, she is a courageous woman.

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