Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Thus she had lain
- OK, so this poem starts off pretty innocently, right? We could be talking about just about any girl or woman waking up from a nap. No biggie, right?
- Well, read on, friends, read on. Things will heat up pretty quickly!
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
- Now we're talking. This isn't any old woman. In fact, she's so incredible that we can't really imagine her as a human woman at all. Maybe she's…Africa?
- There's a rather long tradition of addressing a land (or nation) as if it were a woman. There's Mother Earth, Gaia, Lady Liberty, and Bharat Mata (Mother India), to name just a few. Why is the earth or the nation portrayed as a woman? Well, there are several reasons, and some of them are so sexist that we just won't go into them right now. Here, however, are some of our favorites:
Wait a second – why would Maya Angelou, strong woman extraordinaire, fall into such a stereotypical portrayal?Well, for all the bad stereotypes, the sexy, alluring land myth is pretty potent. Maybe that's the image Angelou is seeking to create. Or maybe she's using some irony here. We'll have to read on to find out.
- Historically, men were the movers and shakers of the world. Hey, we're not saying it wasn't screwed up. We're just saying that that's how it was. What better way to get a man to believe in something than to describe that thing as a woman? After all, if we believe everything we hear, men think about sex just about all the time. Want to grab a man's attention? Talk about breasts. Even if they happen to be the "mountains" of a continent, you've probably got his attention.
- The earth makes things grow and come to life. You could even say that the earth gives birth to new life. Sort of like women – see the connection?
- Women are often stereotyped as soft, defenseless creatures who need to be protected. Although this stereotype has little to no connection with the truth, it does seem to be persistent.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.
- Repeating the first line (with a change from "had" to "has") as she wraps up the first stanza allows Angelou to emphasize the passivity of this image. After all, if you're lying around all day, chances are you're not getting all that much done. That's all well and good if you have a carefree life, but, as this poem is about to prove, nobody's life is without troubles for too long!