Study Guide

Africa Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Maya Angelou

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Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.


Hey, if something sounds good the first time, chances are it'll sound even better the second time. Or the third time. Or the 28th time. It's irrefutable logic from your childhood: if you say "Please" loud enough and long enough, eventually your mom will let you have just about anything you want. We're not saying this poem is annoying and redundant in the way that you were. (Face it, you were.) We're just saying that repetition, used wisely, can be a powerful tool.

  • Lines 1, 7, 17, 25: There's a fancy term for repetition within a poem: anaphora. In this case, some version of the line "Thus she has lain" occurs four (count 'em, four!) times within the 25-line poem.
  • Lines 3, 4, 5, 6: The syntactic structure of these lines is repetitive, giving us the sense of an image that's gradually being built up over time.
  • Lines 19, 20, 22: You guessed it…repeating the first word in a line is anaphora. Chances are that it'll be easier to "remember" when we read it three times!
  • Lines 9, 10: The word "white" is repeated twice in two lines, setting it in stark contrast to the blackness of Africa (as our speaker describes her in line 8).

The Natural Woman

OK, we know you're singing that song from the Herbal Essences commercials in your head right now. You know, the one that starts "You make me feel like a natural woman"? Well, in lots of ways, that's precisely what this poem is trying to do for Africa. With all of that intense natural imagery, Africa becomes not just a landscape but a voluptuous woman. Angelou reclaims all of the nineteenth-century stereotypes about the dangerous desirability of black women, turning their desirability into a natural (and historical) phenomenon.

  • Line 2: Describing the woman as "sugarcane sweet" creates a potent image, one that also happens to reflect one of the natural resources of Africa.
  • Line 3: Anthropomorphizing the desert into a woman's hair makes this image into a continuing picture of a single woman.
  • Line: 5 Once again, anthropomorphism and strong imagery combine to make this line another bit of the woman-as-Africa.
  • Line: 6 The Nile as tears? That's a larger-than-life image which is quickly turning into a conceit (an extended metaphor comparing Africa to a beautiful woman).

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