by Maya Angelou
Where It All Goes Down
We're going out on a limb here, folks. After all, Africa is only mentioned about twice in every stanza. Oh, and it's the title. Did we forget to mention that?
Here's the real question, though: why does Africa seem so much like a person . . . and so little like a huge landmass in the Atlantic Ocean? Sure, we get some pretty descriptive discussion of the "setting" of this poem, but it starts to sound quite a bit like the description of a pretty lady, not a map.
As it turns out, Angelou is actually drawing upon one of the most well-used tropes in the book: the personification of a land. Ever heard of "Mother Earth"? That's what we're talking about. Native American stories have all sorts of versions of anthropomorphism (that's a fancy word for turning inanimate objects into living, breathing ones). Heck, the Greeks even made the earth into Gaia, a goddess.
Why does this personification stuff seem like a pretty good approach to take? Well, we're betting it has something to do with human emotions. We're used to caring for people. (We're betting that you are, too. If not, well, good luck. You're about to have a long, lonely life, friend.) We're not so used to caring for rocks. Or dirt. After all, when was the last time that you felt passionate about your yard?
So when Angelou turns Africa into a woman, she's trying to anticipate her readers' reactions to Africa's history. Want to get people to care about Africa? Turn it into something recognizable, something human.
You could say, then, that our setting isn't a "where." It's really a "who."