Maya Angelou, who passed away on May 28, 2014, was a renowned author, dancer, actress and activist (among other things) known especially for her autobiographical classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She has also written and directed films, plays, poetry, essays and cookbooks. We’ve compiled a list of five books (some more well-known than others) that readers who are new to Maya Angelou can read to access the poet’s heart. In her mixture of humor, pathos, and wisdom, Angelou encourages readers to face their own lives with honesty, clarity, and candor.
1)I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is a story about a black girl’s coming of age in the Jim Crow south. In the missive, Angelou tells both the painful and triumphant narratives of her childhood. Much of her childhood was spent being shipped back and forth between her mother and grandmother. When a sexual assault took her voice; she found joy in the music of poetry and literature helped her to discover it again. Published in 1970, the book was one of the first of a series of girlhood narratives by African American women that unapologetically addressed incest and rape. Shortly after publication, Angelou said, “Now I’m going to do what I can to help clear the air in black America because, as I see it, that’s what needs to be done. I’m going to write in “Caged Bird” about all those black men with their fists balled up who talk about nation-buildin’ time then go home to rape their nieces and stepdaughters and all the little teen-age girls who don’t know beans about life. I’m goin’ to tell it because rape and incest are rife in the black community.”
2) Gather Together in My Name (1974) is a sequel to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and a predecessor to much of what is written about Black mothering today. In this honest memoir, Angelou describes her first few years as a mother that were also the last few years of her adolescence. Angelou illustrates the many and changing faces of American racism as she describes her struggles to raise her son amidst worsening public policies that negatively affected working mothers of color. In a 1974 New York Times review of the book, Annie Gottlieb wrote that “Nothing is more painfully clear in this book than the fact that black America…is very American in a through-the-looking-glass way, dedicated to the Middle class dream that is cruelly withheld and tantalizingly dangled.”
3) The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994) Published shortly after her inaugural reading of “On the Pulse of Morning,” Collected Poems showcases Angelou’s depth and breadth as a poet. Although she is better known for her seven-part autobiographical series, Angelou considered herself a poet long before her friend James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis teamed up to convince her to write her own memoir. Her first collection of poems, Give me a Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize and some of those poems are included in the collection. One of the most famous poems from Complete Collected Poems is “Phenomenal Woman,” introduced to much of Generation X in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice, a movie starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. The collection also features “And Still I Rise,” another popular poem that has been featured in commercials for the United Negro College Fund. Because the collection shows the trajectory of her career as a poet, it is clear that Angelou’s most consistent message is one of endurance and uplift.
4) Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) This is Angelou’s second collection of essays and, according to critics, one of her “wisdom books.” The essays focus on the personal and political; many are autobiographical and critical at once. In one essay, Angelou defends her support for Clarence Thomas; in another, her admiration of Oprah Winfrey. Angelou takes a witty stance on aging, writes about sensuality, and reinterprets the biblical scriptures of her childhood. Although many of these essays are published in various magazines, this collection pulls much of the poet’s sage advice together and places it at your fingertips.
5) Mom & Me & Mom (2013) is the last book-length work published by Angelou. It is the story of her relationship with her mother. Readers of Angelou are familiar with the tension of this mother-daughter relationship because of its rendering in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather in my Name. This memoir is an appropriate bookend to the complex story of mothering that began in Caged Bird. Angelou recalls the process of forgiveness and her relationship with her mother in her adult years. In one moving scene, Angelou’s mother tells her that she is the greatest woman she knows. “”You are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother—yes, you belong in that category. Here, give me a kiss.” Angelou wrote that this was the moment that dared her to believe that she “become somebody. Someday.” Angelou spent a lifetime daring her readers to believe the same.
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