From philomela to the nightingale: The autobiographical song of Maya Angelou

Abstract: “From Philomela to the Nightingale: The Autobiographical Song of Maya Angelou” by Hema Nair R. gives an in-depth analysis of the five-volume autobiography of Maya Angelou, and captures effectively the significance and exquisiteness of language as used in the work. Nair unravels the close-knitted and multi-stranded structure of the bird-imagery (that of the nightingale), Philomel, song, voice, language and silence to explicate how they support mutually and in unison, Angelou’s efforts to break the cultural silencing of women.

Keywords: personal freedom, interior self movement, black female experience, black cultural identity, cultural displacement

I am the history of rape

I am the history of the rejection of who I am

I am the history of the terrorised incarceration of myself

-June Jordan1

Though men have been writing autobiographies shaped by the contemplation of singularity, from the time of St. Augustine, women, until recently, lived in such a pre-autobiographical era that singularity was hardly ever spoken of. The difficulty of the woman to articulate herself was perhaps because women were “selves in hiding”2 and were bound by shackles of convention. The difficulties of a black woman writing herself is further problematised because of centuries of silence imposed on her as a black, as a woman and as the colonised. With the redefinition of the autobiography as “an aspect of memory work, part of the spectrum of life histories and oral histories” 3, the autobiographical genre has become mere democratic.

Maya Angelou’s autobiographical writings can be understood only in relation to the Black autobiographical tradition. That Black autobiography has great variety, can be borne out by the fact that the virtual library in internet offers more than 2500 hits when confronted with the word. From the Autobiography of Omar IbnSeid, Slave in North Carolina4 (1831) and Booker. T.Washington’s Up from Slavery5 (1901) to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son6 and The Autobiography of Malcolm7 black autobiography is a formidable body of work. Like the thousands of slave narratives, written by fugitive and freed slaves who sought to awaken the consciousness of a nation, Maya Angelou’s “song of myself”8 is a celebration of the freedom of speech – of words bursting like water from a breached dam.

From the image of the muzzled mouth of the African, enslaved in the new world, popuarised by the proto image evoked by the narrative of Oloudah Equiano,9 the black people have struggled for a new image. They struggled for literacy and self determination. They fought their way back to speech, “the desire articulated by the mother voice of African American autobiographical literature modulated in narratives of emanicipated men and women of that descent.”10 The voice that articulated the national desire to explore the limits of civil and personal freedom speaks in Angelou’s narrative too. Dramatic individualisation blends smoothly in Angelou’s work with social and moral protest, forging and justifying the connection between the individual present and the collective past. “Women’s history itself has the most commitment to autobiography out of the feminist belief in the movement from silence to speech – retrieving silenced voices of the past …..”11

Angelou’s autobiography invites comparison with other outstanding black women autobiographies, especially, Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks On a Road (1940)12, Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)13 and Mary Mebane’s Mary 14. Like Zora Neale Hurston who recreates the world of a black child in Eaton Ville, Florida, Maya Angelou brings to life the world she knew in Stamps, Arkansas. The events in the autobiography are shaped, like Hurston, by a command of language, a level of articulation that employs both the linguistic rituals of the dominant culture and those of the Black vernacular tradition. For Angelou, more than for Hurston, the mission of autobiography is linked to the spoken word and the oral tradition. Unlike the embittered pessimism of Anne Moody which enjoins her to doubt the support of the poor Mississippi Blacks whose struggle she had taken up, Angelou is full of optimism. Each bitter or bitter sweet experience serves only to renew her innocence. At the end of Gather Together in My Name15, (Henceforth parenthetically referred to as Gather Together) Angelou is able to say after being sucked into the murky world of prostitution and narcotics and after being enmeshed in the dark, shifty quagmire of unstable, poorly paid jobs, “I had no idea what I was going to make of my life, but I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I’d never lose it again” (Gather Together, 214). Unlike Mary Mebane who speaks in terms of a nightmarish personal relationship which “created a giant rawscar across (her) life” 16, Angelou speaks of the remarkable influence of her grandmother, an upright matriarch and of her glamorous, worldly wise mother and numerous caring and supportive friends. Unlike both Moody and Mebane, Angelou’s autobiography affirms and celebrates life.

No other American writer has decided to make her “major, cultural and literary contribution so predominantly in autobiographical form”17. Like the complementary counterpart of the female bildungsroman that celebrates “the voyage in”18 Angelou’s autobiography in five volumes is “an outgrowth of Pietistic confessional fervour.”19 Angelou celebrates the vital richness of Southern Black life, its pains and prejudices and explores the joy and the bewilderment it posed to a black child in Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s in the first volume, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.20 (Henceforth parenthetically referred to as The Caged Bird) The second volume presents a young girl struggling to carve a niche for herself and her small son in post Second World War America. Titled Gather Together in My Name, this volume is an attempt to capture “the episodic, erratic nature of adolescence”21. The third volume of Angelou’s autobiography, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas22 presents Angelou as a young married adult in the 1950s seeking a career in show business and experiencing her first amiable contact with writers. The fourth volume, The Heart of a Woman23 finds Maya Angelou immersed in the world of Black writers and artists in Harlem and working for civil rights movement with Martin Luther King. It presents a wiser and more mature woman examining the roles of being a woman and a mother. In the last volume, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes24, (Henceforth parenthetically referred to as All God’s Children) Maya emigrates to Ghana only to discover that she could not go home again. She achieves a new awareness of love and friendship, civil rights and slavery and the myth of mother Africa. It is about seeing and understanding the world from another’s vantage point. Together, the five volumes emphasise a movement towards the interior self, a movement that encompasses also the effect of the community on the individual’s achievement and retention of an integrated, acceptable self that is however possible only after fragmentation and pain.

The Caged Bird, the first volume of autobiography, published when Angelou was forty-one, is a careful record of a young black girl’s initiation and self discovery. The book is dedicated to her son, Guy Johnson and “all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs …..” (Frontpiece of The Caged Bird).

The defiance thrown at odds and the God of white racism, discrimination and injustice is further compounded by Angelou’s particular positioning as a woman – a woman who as a helpless child is violated by the father figure – a person she trusted. Like the tale of the violated Philomela, the archetypal rape victim, who changes into the nightingale, Angelou sings the song of herself, which, in addition to the psychotherapeutic solace it provides, is a lucid account of the black female experience. Shorn of the masks of fiction, the words issue forth in spontaneous, full-throated ease. If Philomela’s tongue is cut off by Tereus, her brother – in law, the King of Thrace, to prevent her from voicing the rape she was subjected to, Mr Freeman, Angelou’s violator, threatens to kill her brother and thus, psychologically decapitates her. “If you scream, I’m gonna kill you. And if you tell, I’m gonna kill Bailey….” (The Caged Bird 65). His final injunction, “… don’t you tell … Remember don’t you tell a soul …” elicits the only possible response, “No sir, Mr.Freeman, I won’t tell …” (The Caged Bird 66). Silence was fast creeping apace for the initiation was proving to be too costly. Physically and mentally traumatised, Maya finds herself unable to cope with the pain and to concentrate. In one of the most painful passages of the book, Angelou states:

After two blocks, I know I’d never make it. Not unless I counted
every step and stepped on every crack. I had started to burn between
my legs more than the time I’d wasted Sloane’s Liniment on myself.
My legs throbbed or rather the inside of my thighs throbbed with the
same force that Mr Freeman’s heart had beaten. Thrum … step …
thrum … step … STEPON THE CRACK … thrum … step. I went up
the stains one at a, one at a, one at a time …( The Caged Bird (66).

Like Tereus, Mr Freeman silences Maya – Ritie as he calls her. Like Philomela, unable to articulate her pain, Angelou is entombed in silence – a silence that her mother took to be a sign of illness. When she learns that Mr Freeman has gone, she wonders:

Could I tell her now? The terrible pain assured me that I couldn’t.
What he did to me and what I allowed must have been very bad if
already God let me hurt so much. If Mr Freeman was gone, did that
mean that Bailey was out of danger? And if so, if I told him, would he
still love me?

(The Caged Bird- 68).

The cage of guilt and silence effectively entraps Maya. It even appears to be the safer place to be in. It’s only after Bailey’s assurance that no one could hurt or kill him that Maya speaks about her experience. The traumatic experience at the court and Mr Freeman’s subsequent death caused Maya to realise that:

The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than
Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow I knew that because I loved him so
much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person
might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out might poison
people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only
pretended. I had to stop talking … (The Caged Bird73).

Everyone soon caught on that Maya wouldn’t speak to anyone else but Bailey. The family initially accepted the behaviour as post- rape, post – hospital affliction. However their patience ran out and often Maya was punished for sullenness and impertinence of which her muteness was the outward sign. Soon Maya and her brother found themselves back in Stamps, Arkansas.

Maya lives in perfect personal silence for nearly a year:
… all I had to do was to attach myself leech like to sound. I began to  listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the  sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones and I simply stood still in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds (The Caged Bird 73).

Her silence is brought into sharp contrast to St. Louis with “its noise and activity, its trucks and its buses” (The Caged Bird– 74). Her silence is however in tune with Stamps, with its obscure lanes and lonely bungalows – a place where nothing ever happened. Silence is the cocoon into which she crept.

Sounds came to me dully as if people were speaking through their
handkerchiefs or with their hands over their mouth … (The Caged Bird (77).

Unlike Maya’s experience in St. Louis, she is understood in Stamps for people equated her unwillingness to talk to her reluctant return to the south. Maya’s silence and her trauma crystallises implicitly in the tale of the brown/ black plumed bird – the nightingale.

The bird image is both a symbol of aspiration and defeat. Centuries of racial prejudice that is the heritage of the black woman is essentially a pigeon house/aviary that seeks to confine her. The implicit cage/aviary/pigeon house image speaks of the paradoxical dichotomy of female experience – the conflicting desire for boundless freedom and the safety of the enclosure. Bird imagery abound in the narrative spanning Mommas depiction as mother bird and Bailey. Johnson Senior as the bird who flies the nest (The Caged Bird 46) to the depiction of the black people themselves as “black birds”. (Front piece of The Caged Bird). Momma, according to Angelou, is akin to a hen and Vivian Baxter appears to be “a blithe chick nuzzling around the large, solid, dark hen. The sounds they made had a rich inner harmony. Momma’s deep slow voice lay under my mother’s rapid peeps and chirps like stones under rushing water.” (The Caged Bird 171). The bird image is carried over to other volumes too – the Bird’s solo outfit Angelou acquires for the dance with the R.L. has shiny black feathers ( Gather Together 119). Nor does the image stop there. An unnamed black man desirous of migrating is described by Angelou as a “large exotic bird” (All God’s Children 39). Angelou is described by the beautician to whom she goes in a bid to fix her hair in the Ghanian fashion as “… not a chicken, you know sistah … not to say you are too old to lay eggs … “( All God’s Children 37). In a critical article on Maya Angelou, she and Simone de Beauvoir are described as “birds of a feather.”25

The bird imagery which hints at chirps and rushing water and hence signifies sound is related to silence that is Angelou’s response to myriad situations. The response of two of Angelou’s ex-school mates to the news of the birth of her son characteristically evokes the image of birds. Lily and an unnamed ex class mate are cruel and hurtful on seeing Maya’s beautiful baby. They say “A crow gives birth to a dove. The bird kingdom must be petrified …” (Gather Together 17) Maya’s response to the jibe is perfect silence. The only reaction is that she leaves without saying goodbye. “There is a point in fury when one becomes abject. Motionless, I froze, as Lot’s wife must have done, having caught a last glimpse of concentrated evil …” (Gather Together 17).

Petrified silence is Maya’s response to a wide range of situations ranging from love, surprise and shock to unwillingness to reply, down right disagreement, response to fear and ultimately as a method of survival. Maya is “struck dumb” at the sight of her beautiful mother (The Caged Bird 49). She is silent when surprised (The Caged Bird 195) and registers her unwillingness to reply to her father’s querry whether she’d like to go to California by observing silence (The Caged Bird 46). When Momma wants Maya and Bailey to be grateful to their parents who’d sent them Xmas gifts, Maya does not agree. “I wanted to scream, “Yes. Tell him to take them back. But I didn’t move…” (The Caged Bird 44). Maya employs silence as retreat and as means of survival when she decides to stop talking (The Caged Bird 68).

The retreat to silence is not a technique that Maya alone perfects. Other people in the text echo Maya’s silence. Bailey, in refusing to make a sound when he is thrashed mimes Maya’s reaction. (The Caged Bird 98). Dolores, the girl friend of Bailey Johnson Senior shares Maya’s shocked silence when her father speaks of an intended trip to Mexico with Maya. However her silence unlike that of Maya’s is a jealous reaction (The Caged Bird 195). Maya’s Grandmother Baxter, “would stop speaking… when she was angry”. (The Caged Bird 70). Silence as a weapon is employed by the black people as a whole in Angelou’s narrative especially in Book 4 of her work, The Heart of a Woman. The leaders planned a silent protest, “We had expected to stand, veiled and mournful in dramatic but silent protest…” (The Heart of a Woman 158). However angry screams broke the dark quiet auditorium of the United Nations building. This vocal response of the black people is something Angelou considers symptomatic of the black people themselves,

We are a tongued folk. A race of singers. Our lips shape words and
rhythms which elevate our spirits and quicken our blood …I have spent over fifty years listening to my people.26

Like Philomela, who in her re-incarnation as a nightingale sings her song of woe, Angelou articulates the quintessential black female experience. The autobiography as a genre, of historiography, of writing oneself, provides the writer with a history and a cultural identity. It goes a step further too. For the oppressed, the colonised and the exploited, the movement from silence to speech is not merely an attempt to insert a selfhood into history. It is part of a political strategy for liberation.27 Angelou taps the potential of the autobiography as the text of the oppressed and the culturally displaced, forging a right to speak both for and beyond the individual. People in a position of powerlessness-women, black people, working class people have more than begun to insert themselves into the culture via autobiography – via the assertion of a personal voice which speaks beyond itself. Autobiography emerges as the most discreet and accessible way of countering silence and misrepresentation.

Angelou breaks the taboo on the publicly heard power of women’s voices. “Public writing and public speech, closely allied, were both real and symbolic acts of self determination for women…”28 In breaking the taboo on the publicly heard female voice, in finding the silenced cultural voice, in trying to appropriate a space for herself in the identity of an Afro-American and in communicating the gaps and the silences, Angelou is breaking new grounds in literature.

Angelou’s awareness of the need for a language, the hostile adult world did not understand, is apparent early enough in The Caged Bird, when Maya attempts to communicate with her brother in Pig Latin, which she thought her brother and his friends had created. She is shocked when she hears her father reply to her very private question to Bailey, “Ooday, Ooyay inkthay ishthay is our atherfay or ooday ooyay inkthay atthay away are eingbay idkay appednay?” which means – Do you think this is our father or do you think that we are being kidnapped? (The Caged Bird 49). The ability of her father to reply, is, according to her, an example of the perfidy of the adult world which sought to entrap children. In p.120 of The Caged Bird, Angelou speaks of a new language that Maya and her friend Louise tried to develop – a language, they named Tut language:

Since all the other children spoke Pig Latin, we were superior because
Tut was hard to speak and even harder to understand…Louise would
rattle off a few sentences to me in unintelligible Tut language and
would laugh. Naturally I laughed too. Snickered really, understanding
nothing… (The Caged Bird 120).

Maya is aware also of the jargon of the finishing school for black girls. Miss. Viola’s kitchen. Though mute, Maya immerses herself in the newly acquired jargon (The Caged Bird 89).

Awareness of special language registers are carried to Gather Together when Maya speaks of her inability to communicate with the regulars in the restaurant where she worked as a waitress for she hadn’t learned their language. In The Heart of a Woman, Maya speaks of the language of etiquette among Southern Blacks which is:

as severe and distinct as a seventeenth century minuet or an African
initiation ritual. There is a moment to speak, a tone of voice to be
used, words to be chosen, a time to drop one’s eyes and a split second
when a stranger can be touched…without conveying anything other
than respectful friendliness… (The Heart of a Woman 99).

This places language as just an element of communication. The inability to communicate and the reversal to being mute plagued Maya once more in Egypt, where she stays for a time with Vus. At a reception she attends with Vus, she realises that:

Vus was successfully teaching me that there was a particular and
absolute way for a woman to approach an African man. I only knew
how a wife addressed an African husband. I didn’t know how to start
a conversation with a male stranger…( The Heart of a Woman 201).

Maya makes the important discovery that she doesn’t speak the same language as Vus for she is unable to condone his infidelity – something he lightly dismisses, for he is an “African man” (The Heart of a Woman 245). The African group stage a hearing of their marital disagreement in the Liberian Residency. Maya is initially nervous and apprehensive of the “secret ritual or a dangerous kangaroo court” (The Heart of a Woman 249). Yet the group speaks her language for they understand and support her cause blaming Vus for the failed marriage. The voice Maya finds to combat the African group at the Liberian Residency was the voice of silence and absence – a voice that only a woman of her AfroAmerican descent could find – a voice that was engaged in a mortal combat with the theory of the subservience of the female. Far from being satisfied with voicing the marginal, Angelou tries to appropriate the cultural centre and attempts to tap a “wide, wild and varied voice”29.

In finding this wild voice, Angelou has perhaps done a lot for the genre of women’s autobiography. The wild voice of the black woman is however not only the voice of bitterness. “We must give voice to centuries not only of bitterness and hate but also of neighbourly kindness and sustaining love”30.

Maya’s muteness is first breached by the love and kindness of Mrs. Flowers. It is she who first teaches Maya that:

Words mean something other than what is set down on paper. It takes
the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning
(The Caged Bird 82).

Her practical demonstration of this theory in the reading aloud of the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities is an eye opener to Maya

She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the
same that I had read? Or were there notes, music lined on the pages as
in a hymn book? Her sound began to cascade gently. I knew from
listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her
reading and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word…
(The Caged Bird 84).

Speaking of the importance of language in her development as a writer, Angelou takes into consideration the importance to her, of the Bible and her appreciation of the “Word”.

I decided when I was very young to read the whole Bible and I did so
twice. I loved its cadence. And in church when the minister would
make the Bible come alive… I could see it. And the tonality and the
music and the old people…all that. For me, it was going to the opera31.

Gifted with an undeniably exceptional ear to pick out the rich, deep cadences and in her use of precise and vivid words and phrases to describe voices, Maya Angelou treats us to a description of voices like this passage from The Heart of a Woman:

The voice of an adult American black man has undeniable structures.
It has the quality of gloss, slithery as polished onyx or it can be nubby
and notched with harshness. The voice can be sonorous as a brass solo
or light and lyrical as a flute (The Heart of a Woman 217, 218).

The Afro-American ear was accustomed to the call and response in jazz, in the blues and in the prose of black preachers. Repetition was important in blues and hence two-time talk was inevitable. The black response to the blues, long on moaning and deep on content was more fulsome for the blues encoded the race memory. When she sings an African song in Swahili called “Freedom”,

U hu uhuru oh yea freedom

U hu uhuru oh yea freedom, (The Heart of a Woman 48)

with its repetitive, rhythmic words, the entire audience responded. Repetitions that were used in other kinds of music were easily picked up by the blacks.

The same ear that distinguished the texture of sounds could easily pick up the relationship between religious music/preaching and the blues. Angelou records the joining of blues and religious tradition. The agony in the barrelhouse blues and the agony in religion have a connecting point.

A stranger to the music could not have made a distinction between the songs sung a few minutes before (in church) and those being danced to in the gay house by the rail road tracks. All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long? (The Caged Bird111).

Angelou manipulates all the techniques of the Blues numbers – of the repetition, of the whoop (the slave holler used to uplift the spirit of the slaves) of the changes of rhythm and of the dropping of the oppositional mode of address in her autobiographical narrative in five volumes. This is especially significant, for Angelou’s autobiography, like the blues, is the result of an impulse to keep painful details and episodes alive32. Like the traditional blues, the black autobiography expands the solo-the voice of a single, individual singer, yet retains the tone of the tribe. The blues autobiographer, by articulating absorbed experiences of the narrator makes it universal. Likewise Angelou’s narrative affirms the difference of the woman-text and implicitly states that it is not the corpse of the mummified woman nor a fantasy of woman’s decapitation, but something different, a step forward, an adventure, an exploration of woman’s powers-of her power, her potency, her ever dreaded strength, of the regions of her femininity33.

From the sense that “Words are useless” (Gather Together 35) the author proceeds to a fluid narrative that encompass tales of white prejudice and black resistance to white domination. It touches on sensitive issues like naming, ranging from the writer’s own change of name to Maya from the earlier Marguerite, and that of her son from Clyde to Guy (Singin and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) Marguerite is aware all along of nuances of names. In Caged Bird, the child Marguerite is variously called Rita, Ritie and Marguerite by her mother. She is able to distinguish between the meanings encoded in names-

Uh- huh. It was bad all right. Not “Ritie” or “Maya” or “Baby”.”Marguerite”… “Ritie, go get me that big, Webster’s… suddenly it wasn’t all that serious. I was Ritie again… (The Caged Bird 235).

In Gather Together, Marguerite is called “Sugar” by LD. L.D is a man of many personas and has a name for each persona. As lover boy, he is called LD, as exploiter he answers to “daddy” and as husband, he is called Lou. The hellish horror of negroes of being called out of their names is depicted in detail in the episode where Marguerite, out of protest at being called Margaret and then Mary, breaks Mrs. Cullinan’s green glass cups (The Caged Bird 93). Angelou provides a reason for the self conscious activity that naming is for the negro. “It was a dangerous practice to call a negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, black birds, crows, boots and spooks…” (The Caged Bird 91).

Naming becomes important to the reader too. The critique of autobiography as a transgressive genre, emerges as the truth for though it is a particularly valuable resource in a variety of argumentative strategies in relation to topics such as subject/ object, self/identity, private/public, fact/fiction, there is clearly an instability in terms of the postulated opposites. Autobiography appears to be a dangerous double agent moving between these oppositions. The disjunct between the private and public persona becomes visible, when the reader caught up in the trauma of the narrative persona unconsciously thinks about “Maya’s” experience which “Angelou” recounts. The face of the narrator is akin to that of a fictional character while the reader is aware at the same time of being “under”34 the skin of the author.

The skin tones of negroes from rich black (The Caged Bird 78) and “blue black, smooth as glass skin” (The Heart of a Woman 134) to “the reddish tan colour which southern blacks call mariney” (The Heart of a Woman 100) and the “high yellow” colour of Guy’s skin (The Heart of a woman 132) are detailed to explode the single blanket term “black” to cover the variations of colour. The tales that the Africans sustained themselves on, ranging from “tales of queens and princesses and young girls and market women who had outwitted the British or French or Boers” (The Heart of a Woman 137) to the history of Harriet Tubman called Moses and Sojourner Truth are sources of never failing inspiration to the black struggle-something that Angelou, the black activist does not lose sight of. The fable of Brer Rabbit that glorified the black cunning which would finally win over white brutality, also undercuts the narrative.

The rhythms underlying the life of the Afro-American that manifest itself in the felicitous use of language is recreated in the dialogue and voices that Angelou presents. Perhaps there is no better way of putting it than in the citation presented to Maya Angelou by the Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina in May 1977:

There in Stamps, Arkansas, she heard the talk that became the music of her life.
And whether it was soft grandmother talk or the rich metaphorical language of the Bible or the throbbing spirituals, or the rhythms, speech patterns and imagery of the Black preacher or the multi layered talk between the Blacks and the whites, she captured all the sound…35.

Theme, form and the underlying rhythms build to a full throated song of herself that enthrals the reader – a celebration of survival, of the forging of identity, of courage, of persistence and of the renewal of innocence against overwhelming odds. Gendered black resistance, both in its language and in its musicality is created in the narrative. Angelou proves conclusively that “cultural silencing”36 of the woman can be countered by encoding forbidden stories into literary history. Silence itself can be a source of strength and inspiration to tap the power of language to cure. The “most interesting, exciting and important conversation that has ever been heard”37 is possible when, breaking the silence, Angelou begins the transformative dialogue between herself and the world and creates for woman a place in literary tradition.

1. June Jordan, Poem About My Rights, Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems (London: Virago, 1986) 66-7.

2. Patricia Spacks, Imagining a Self (Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard U P, 1976)59.

3. Laura Marcus, “The Face of Autobiography”, The Uses of Autobiography ed. Julia Swindells (London: Taylor and Francis, 1995) 13

4. Omar Ibn Seid, Autobiography of Omar IbnSeid, Slave in North Carolina (1831, qtd in Black Americans in Autobiography: An Annotated Bibliography of Autobiographies and Autobiographical Works (New York: MLA, 1984).

5. Booker.T.Washington, Up From Slavery (1901; rpt. Oxford: OUP, 1995).

6. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (London: Michael Joseph 1964).

7. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (rpt; New York: Pathfinder, 1994).

8. Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass (New York: Mentor Books, 1954).

9. Oloudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Life of Oloudah Equiano (London: Heinman, 1995)

10. Eleanor.W.Traylor, “Foreword” to Dolly A.McPherson, Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) xii, xiii.

11. Julia Swindells, “Introduction”, The Uses of Autobiography. ed.JuliaSwindells. (London:Taylor and Francis, 1995) 9.

12. Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942, rpt London: Harper Collins 1991).

13. Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (New York: The Dial Press, 1968)

14. Mary Mebane, Mary (New York: The Viking Press, 1981).

15. Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name (1974; rpt. London: Virago, 1993). Henceforth paranthetically documented.

16. Mary Mebane, Mary (New York: The Viking Press, 1981) 28.

17. Dolly.A. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) 5.

18. Elizabeth Abel, ed. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. (Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 198

19. Sandra Friedan, “Shadowing/Surfacing/Shedding: German Writers in Search of a Female Bildungsroman”, The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Ed. Elizabeth Abel (Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 1983) 304.

20. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings( 1969; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1993). Henceforth paranthetically documented.

21. Wayne Warga, “Maya Angelou: One Woman Creativity Cult”, Los Angeles Times. California Section. Jan.9, 1972. 22. Maya Angelou, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1978; rpt London: Virago, 1991). Henceforth paranthetically documented.

23. Maya Angelou, The Heart of Woman (1981; rpt. London: Virago, 1991). Henceforth paranthetically documented.

24. Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes. (1986; rpt London: Virago, 1991). Henceforth paranthetically documented.

25. Joanne Megna-Wallace, “Simon de Beauvoir and Maya Angelou: Birds of a Feather”, Simone de Beauvoir Studies 6. 1989: 49-55.

26. Maya Angelou, Personal Interview, qtd in Dolly A.Mcpherson, Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou (New York: Peter Lang, 1990) 21.

27. Idea borrowed from Bell Hooks, Talking Back, Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (London: Sheba, 1989).

28. Cora Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh and Other Poems (London: The Women’s Press, 1978) 10.

29. MicheleneWandor, “Voices are Wild”, Women’s Writing: A Challenge to Theory ed. Moira Montieth (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1986) 86.

30. Alice Walker, “The Black Woman and the Southern Experience”, Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (London: Womanist Press, 1984) 21.

31. Maya Angelou, Personal Interview to Dolly A.Mcpherson, July 30 1981, Dolly.A.McphersonOrder Out of Choos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou 10.

32. Idea borrowed from Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Signet Books, 1966) 23.

33. Helene Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation? Feminist Literary Thought: A Reader ed. Mary Eagleton (Massachussets: Blackwell, 1996) 324.

34. Doris Lessing, Under My skin (London: Flamingo, 1995)

35. Qtd in Dolly.A.McPherson, Order out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou 10.

36. Christine Froula, “The Daughter’s Seduction: Sexual Violence and Literary History”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11.4 1986: 621-644.

37. Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters: The Novel Essay Portion of “The Year”, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (New York: Harcourt Brace Jouanovich, 1978) xxxviii – xxxix.

Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Is a regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.

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Hema R. Nair
Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Is a regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.

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