The Cage Bird Poem was written by Maya Angelou (Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou) in 1968 and published by Random House in 1969 (Angelou). It was her first poem of many to come and it is an allegory type because it has metaphors and hidden meanings. I chose this poem as my topic because of the deep respect I have for her as a person and for her artistic contributions and humanity to the world. A teacher of Angelou, Mrs. Flowers, emphasized the importance of the spoken word, explained the nature of and importance of education, and instilled in her a love of poetry (Maya, Poetry Foundation). Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928 and passed away on May 28, 2014, and was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist (Maya, Bio.com). She inspired others to be better and not to settle for complacency and to grow. She was not, a politician or a political insider and yet her influence reached not just politics but so many other aspects of American life (Gillespie, et al).
She marched for civil rights, racial justice, gender equity and First Amendment freedoms, denounced apartheid and defended human rights and dignity at every turn (Gillespie, et al). Angelou called courage the most important of all the virtues, and lived her life accordingly (Gillespie, et al). Her struggles of growing up molded her into the great woman she was. She experienced deep poverty and sexual abuse at a very young age and confided in her brother about it (Maya, Biography). Her offender was killed as a result, and because she felt it was her fault, she did not speak for five years (Maya, Biography). It was during those years of silence that she began to read all of the books she could get (Maya, Biography). She wrote many inspiring and motivating quotes, but this one seems more than appropriate for what happened to her and how she was able to survive, “you may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them (Deutsch).
During the time Angelou wrote the poem, the 1960s were one of the tumultuous decades in American history, signified by racial tensions, political assassinations, the war in Vietnam, and generational discord (History). The Caged Bird poem uses metaphors and the main theme and message is about being trapped while other birds are free to fly wherever they wish. The caged bird desires freedom too but its wings are clipped, and his feet are tied. This poem as it relates to the times can point to racism against African Americans and gender inequality against women. Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King were all assassinated during this decade of American history. These men were all political activists for the cause of freedom and equality. Likewise, Maya worked as a civil rights activist for both Malcolm X and Dr. King, and she was very affected by their assassinations. The written word was very important to Angelou and poetry was her favorite.
The Look Away Broadway theatre play was written in 1973 by Jerome Kilty, an actor and playwright of epistolary dramas (Hevesi), which are literature written though a series of documents, most often letters (Epistolary). I chose this two-act dramatic play because of its historical significance as it tells a story about President Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln is played by Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Keckley is played by Maya Angelou, her dressmaker. The opening night Playhouse Theatre playbill is shown in Appendix A (Look Away). Keckley is Mrs. Lincoln’s primary confidante during the devastating period after President Lincoln’s assassination (Williamson).
The play is set in 1875, 10 years after Lincoln’s assassination. Mrs. Lincoln has been committed by her son to the Bellevue Hospital for Insane Persons in Batavia, Illinois. Her appeal has been granted, and she is now adjudged returned to reason (Barnes). Keckley describes Mrs. Lincoln’s intense grief as well as her financial troubles (Williamson). Mrs. Lincoln has frustration at Congress’ failure to provide financial support, and her anxiety about finding alternative sources of income (Williamson). Keckley’s memoir entitled Behind the Scenes, was received with sensational scorn and scandal. The book contains reprints of intimate correspondence between Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln (Appendix Letters), although these were included against Keckley’s wishes. Keckley’s primary goal was to protect Mrs. Lincoln’s reputation as well as her own. In her 1868 preface, she writes of her narrative, “I am well aware that I have invited criticism” (p. xi) and goes on to explain: “If I have betrayed confidence in anything I have published, it has been to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world (Williamson). When Clive Barnes, English writer and critic for the New York Times, saw the play he described Angelou’s portrayal as Elizabeth as strength and a sweet coolness (Barnes). Maya had a life long reputation for her strength and because of it, others were strengthened too. I really enjoy and appreciate live theatre because it is not a film where there have been cuts and retakes. With theatre, you get raw acting and an emotional connection to it, as least I do.
The beautiful oil on canvas art deco style painting named Ms. Pizazz (aka Maya Angelou) was created by artist Bruni Sablan in 2005, and is shown in Appendix B (Sablan, Maya). I chose this portrait for its imagery of bold warms colors of red, yellow, and orange, and the focal point Sablan captured in Angelou’s calm determined spirit seen through her eyes. Bruni says in her bio true creativityit’s not so much what you get on the canvas, but how you feel after really painting (Sablan). She said she is a highly spiritual being, and feels she connects with the souls of her subjects (Sablan). She was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil and artistry has been her heritage, as her father also painted, and her mother was a classical pianist (Sablan). Being an artist herself, Angelou expresses she is very supportive of the arts and a strong advocate for Federal support of the arts. With this painting, Angelou wrote the following: Art, is created to encourage people to hang on, stand up, forbear, continue. I suggest that we must be suspicious of censors who say they mean to prohibit our art for our own welfare. I suggest that we have to question their motives and tend assiduously to our own personal and national health and our general welfare. We must replace fear and chauvinism, hate, timidity and apathy, which flow in our national spinal column, with courage, sensitivity, perseverance, and, I even dare say, “love.” And by “love” I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage. It is said that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency. We must infuse our lives with art. Our national leaders must be informed that we want them to use our taxes to support street theater in order to oppose street gangs. We should have a well-supported regional theater in order to oppose regionalism and differences that keep us apart. We need nationally to support small, medium and large art museums that show us images of ourselves, those we like and those we dislike. In some way that is very important to us we need to see those we dislike even more than those we like because somehow, we need at least glancing visions of how we look “as in a mirror darkly.” Our singers, composers and musicians must be encouraged to sing the song of struggle, the song of resistance, resistance to degradation, resistance to our humiliation, resistance to the eradication of all our values that would keep us going as a country. Our actors and sculptors and painters and writers and poets must be made to know that we appreciate them, that in fact it is their work that puts starch in our backbones.
We need art to live fully and to grow healthy. Without it we are dry husks drifting aimlessly on every ill wind, our futures are without promise and our present without grace (Sablan, Maya)
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