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A Persistent Refusal of Submission


by Gabriel Feizbakhsh


    A visionary woman does not just leave a strong legacy, moreover influences others as-well. To say the least, Maya Angelou surpassed the predisposed boundaries that were given to her, additionally, she used her revolutionary platform to embolden others. Born in 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou grew up in a harshly segregated city and received all the hardships African Americans and women had to face during those times. Yet throughout her life, with a resume that included: singing, dancing, political activism, novel writing, teaching, and more, Maya Angelou's diverse background and unprivileged upbringing cultivated poetic compositions which shook the cultural normalities that were systematically embedded in her contemporary society. Identifying as a female African American writer, Angelou conveys thoughts regarding endurance against discrimination, confidence in identity, and inherent strength within the African American community.

    Maya Angelou’s diction throughout her poems disturbed the social hierarchy during her time. As an avid political activist, working with names such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, she aimed to use her poetry as a catalyst for motivation towards a modification to the societal system in place. Often affiliated with uses of imagery and metaphors, the lyrical symbols that Angelou uses define the fight against prejudice aimed towards African Americans. “In the white-centered society, African Americans cannot avoid being influenced by the dominant white cultural values that define the white as good and beautiful and the black as sinful and ugly” (Juan Du). Angelou exposes the unfair dominance in her poems while at the same time using strong empathetic instances to destroy the obstacle in her way.

    The subtlety of her symbols defines a race fighting for equality. Angelou compares the oppression of her people to a flightless bird trapped in the confinement of the cage given to it in her poem “Caged Bird”:

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.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
(Angelou Caged Bird).
Her words scream out a cry for attention, but more importantly it advocates for an individual who wants to break free from the prison he or she must succumb to. “In fact, their culture and customs are more or less wiped out because these are in conflict with the dominant culture that is imposed on them” (Du). Although the bird symbolizes the African American culture, while the clipped wings convey the unfair advantages they must face, the personification Angelou used for the singing bird argues that African Americans have their voices to fight for changing the situations they were in. Angelou argues that the bird continues to sing even though it may be afraid of the response it may provoke. But, regardless of the unknown feeling, it is asking for, the bird, like African Americans, will not stop asking until it experiences the freedom it deserves. Another topic she constantly discusses throughout her poems is the idea of individual confidence.

    Pride is another idea that Angelou consistently promotes throughout a large portion of her poems. While she thought it was very important to talk about stamina and fighting for freedom, she believed a step towards that desired goal was acquiring confidence in oneself. As a poetic writer, Angelou used the freedom of her words to emit a sense pride for her people and who she was. Although her poems were more straightforward and blunt, her message had the ability to shake the masses when it came to talking about her self-worth. Her infectious courage emulated through her poems about past experiences or responses to critiques received large acclaim due to her disregard for the reform that society expected of her. By using devices such as rhetorical questions or irony, she poked fun at the patriarchal and inequitable society that she was placed in. This was imminent in the poem “Weekend Glory” and in many of her other poems as-well. Through one of her most confidently expressed poems, “Weekend Glory,” Angelou was able to make powerful regarding individual or Black empowerment. “Angelou became so confident about her life and herself that not only she is not frightened, she even lectures whites how to enjoy themselves. This is evident in the lines: If they want to learn how to live life right, / they ought to study me on a Saturday night” (Petra Janoušková). Although living in a White privileged world, her confidence outweighed the possible fear she would have for some people within the race with an advantage. But as I said before, her poetic responses to critiques help spread the idea of confidence within oneself. Obviously, with a strong female figure whose writing massively influences others, negativity and scorn are met. Yet, although called “threatening and dangerous” (Janoušková), her responses seem to give an even larger impact on her efforts of change and breaking free from discrimination. Within the poem “Weekend Glory,” she states:

Folks write about me.
They just can`t see
how I work all week
at the factory.
Then get spruced up
and laugh and dance
and turn away from worry with sassy glance.
(Angelou Weekend Glory)
Her metaphorical response to all of the critiques shows how confident she really is and how confident she thinks everyone should be. When she writes about how she works all week at the factory, she is making a comparison towards working for what she believe is right, which consistently is equality for African Americans. Even though they get “spruced up” she will not let their opinions belittle her existence and what she is working for. Even though people “cannot see” or in other words ignorance is highly present within society, she will always persist on. Additionally, Angelou wrote about these things to bring up topics that were constantly brushed to the side or not even mentioned at all, yet her confidence allowed her to shed light on the situation. Moreover, “what Angelou achieves by doing this is to bring about the spontaneous redefinition of the black individual, not as an alienated, but as a new and whole person who occupies a totally different social space”(Du). One other theme that Angelou conveys through her vast amounts of poems is the strength within her own African American culture.

    A topic that combines Angelou's fight for individualism and a fight against discrimination is in regards to strength in the African American community. As a Black girl growing up in a completely biased and systematically racist America, Angelou did not just succumb to the powers that were against, rather challenged it. But, her sole purpose wasn’t only to challenge it herself, additionally, she encouraged many people like her, or who were willing to join her, to fight for the cause that would retaliate against the disadvantages she grew up with. She argues in various poems, especially in “I Rise”, that “cultural strength permits a reversal of domination and transforms what was once perceived by the white as inferior and weak race image” (Du). Like her other poems, “I Rise” is a Rhetorical response to critiques and people who might feel threatened by her actions. In the poem, it asks if her sassiness is upsetting to the white man, or if the fact that she is not submissive to them is alarming and frustrating. These rhetorical questions, again, challenge system she was placed in. But more importantly, it shows others that they can do the exact same. She constantly repeats the line “I rise” to provoke others to “rise” with her in efforts to change the way things are. But more importantly, as Petra Janoušková says the poem was, “written by a woman to women as a result of heritage that was full of strength and wisdom and that enabled Angelou to grow into a person with healthy mind and body. She hopes that this heritage can be communicated through and can help further, outside her family circle” (Petra Janoušková). As stated above, it shows that Angelou’s heritage and people allowed her to convey a message towards the masses while upholding the truths of civic justice and the fight for equality.

    Maya Angelou astonished the world with her sweet voice yet powerful words. Her efforts to change a system that was unjust and systematically bias shattered glass ceilings that encouraged her to persist on. Her messages of individuality, collective strength, and endurance to fight took the American society by surprise. Although passed now her words will forever signify the progress and potential change that would enhance society for the better in the following years to come.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. “Weekend Glory .” Weekend Glory by Maya Angelou - Famous Poems, Famous Poets. - All Poetry, allpoetry.com/Weekend-Glory.
Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Janoušková, Petra. “Theme of Survival in Maya Angelou`s Poetry.” Theme of Survival in Maya Angelou`s Poetry, Nov. 2005.
Du, Juan. “English Language and Literature Studies.” Exploring the Theme of Self-Actualization in Maya Angelou's Poetry | Du | English Language and Literature Studies, Canadian Center of Science and Education, 29 Aug. 2014, dx.doi.org/10.5539/ells.v4n3p65.

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