Maya Angelou might just be the grandmother of the American literary scene. She's about the closest thing literature has to a crossover star: from nonfiction prose writer and poet to political counselor, arts advocate, and Oprah ally, Angelou cuts a pretty big path through contemporary society.
Angelou may be known now as a cultural icon, but she backs it up with some decent street cred. When her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, came out in 1969, it rocked the literary world with its full-on confrontation of racism, sexual abuse, poverty, and the growing identity of a young black woman.
In this poem as well, Angelou taps into the black pride movement of the twentieth century, raising awareness of the plight of Africans in the past and attempting to unite all blacks under the banner of an ancestral Africa. Sure, this "Africa" is pretty monolithic – after all, it'd be pretty hard to buy a plane ticket to "Africa" nowadays. We hate to quibble, but we should point out that there are 54 countries on the continent, and some of them are pretty prickly about being lumped together with the other 53.
Angelou's poem flows pretty smoothly into both black pride movements and even pan-Africanism, a political agenda that attempts to unite Africans and people of African descent the world over around a politically unified Africa. Angelou's poem isn't so much about a political future as it is about a shared cultural heritage, but it speaks in the same terms as those used by folks like W.E.B. Du Bois or even Bob Marley. (Want to know more about pan-Africanism? Read up on the Civil Rights Movement in our US History guides!)
In some ways, this poem is like the Star Wars trilogy. You could even say that it's just like when Luke meets up with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It starts with a pretty good history of Africa. Things turn south when the Empire rears its ugly head in Stanza 2, but then the young, new, strong generation resurfaces and starts to kick some serious butt.
OK, so the history of Africa is a heck of a lot more complicated than Star Wars. Then again, it's also a lot more complicated than a 25-line poem. Like George Lucas, though, Maya Angelou is striving to create a sense of epic history. We're not so concerned with the dates and times and facts that comprise Africa's past. We're charting the rise and fall and rise of an entire continent in three short stanzas. It's pretty impressive, really.
Angelou manages to create an emotional space in which to experience the pride and suffering of widely dispersed and often very different groups of people. Sure, there are 20 million ways to live as a black man or black woman. But chances are you can find something that seems to strike home within these lines.
Whatever race, shape, or color you happen to be, and whatever culture you happen to be from, Angelou makes it clear that we're all responsible for remembering the atrocities of Africa's past. Only if we're all witnesses can we make sure that such "slain" histories won't repeat themselves. In other words, this poem is for you.