A baby’s love for his mother is probably the swee
“test emotion we can savor.”(Angelou)
By consistently weaving the theme of motherhood into her literature, Maya
Angelou creates both personal narratives and poems that the reader can relate to.
Her exploration of this universal theme lends itself to a very large and diverse
audience. Throughout Angelou’s works, she allows her followers to witness her
metamorphosis through different aspects of motherhood.
Well-worked themes are always present in Angelou’s works- self-
acceptance, race, men, work, separation, sexuality, and motherhood. However,
Angelou uses the latter to provide “literary unity” (Lupton 7-8).
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, to
Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson. After three years her parents divorced, and
both Maya and her older brother Bailey, were sent to Stamps, Arkansas. Once in
Stamps, the children were cared for by their paternal grandmother, Mrs. Annie
Henderson (Neubauer 21).
In her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou tells the story
of her childhood. She also makes the reader keenly aware of her close connection
with her grandmother. Stephen Butterfield says of Caged Bird (in his Black
Autobiography in America, 1974): “Continuity is achieved by the contact of
mother and child, the sense of life begetting life that happens automatically in spite
of all confusion- perhaps also because of it.”
Annie Henderson is a God-fearing, independent woman whose firm hand
leads Maya throughout many rough spots in her childhood. It is through Mrs.
Henderson’s values of self-determination and personal dignity that Maya’s idea that
she is “shit color” slowly fades away (Vermillion 33).
Maya fails to see her grandmother’s negative traits. She sees only a woman
that many people, both white and black, respect. The general store that Annie
owns is the center of activity in Stamps. This centralization of the store has a
direct correlation to the way Annie is the moral center of Maya’s childhood family
After ten years of living with Momma Henderson, Maya and Bailey are sent
to join their mother in St. Louis. By the time the children are in their teens, they
have covered the western portion of the United States, traveling between their
parents’ separate homes and Momma Henderson’s in Arkansas. Each move greets
them with a different set of relatives or another of their parents’ lovers.
The turmoil that Maya undergoes causes her to question many aspects of
herself. As a young woman she begins to doubt her sexual preference and engages
in a onetime sexual encounter to prove her sexuality. After this experience, Maya
finds herself pregnant. Angelou ends her first book with the birth of her son, Guy.
This occurrence lends itself to a note of awakening that carries through Maya’s
next book, Gather Together In My Name.
Between the conclusion of Caged Bird and the beginning of Gather
Together, there is practically no break in the narrative. The former ends with
Guy’s birth and the latter when he is just a few months old. In its totality, Gather
Together tells the story of Guy’s first three years and of Maya’s struggle as a young,
single mother who is struggling “to achieve respect, love, and a sense of self-
worth.” (Neubauer 22-23). One of her main motives during these early years is to
spare her son the insecurity and rejection that Maya faced as a young child.
However, Maya’s professional career is also developing during this time. Angelou
worries about her responsibility to care for her young son and to provide a stable
environment for him (Lupton 24-25).
In her third book, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas,
Maya discusses her feelings of apprehension and guilt stemming from her leaving
Guy to further her career. Despite her internal conflicts, Angelou accepts a role as
Ruby in Porgy and Bess. After taking on this role, Angelou places Guy in the care
of her mother. Maya is aware of how her actions mirror those of her own mother
when she was young (Lupton 10).
While performing with the theater group, Maya travels throughout Europe,
the Middle East, and North Africa. While in Rome, she must cut short her
engagement because Guy is suffering from her extended leave. She learns that her
son has developed a severe and seemingly untreatable rash in her absence. After
returning to San Francisco, Guy recovers, and together they reach a new level of
trust and interdependence. Simultaneously the two realize that their separation is
now over for good (Neubauer 25).
With a promise that recalls the last lines of Gather Together, Angelou
vows to Guy: “I swear to you, I’ll never leave you again. If I go, you’ll go with me
or I won’t go” (Lupton 14). Singin’ and Swingin’ closes in a sentence that stresses,
through its three nouns, the underlying themes of the book: “Although I was not a
great singer, I was his mother, and he was my wonderful, dependently independent
son.” This sentence not only works to close Angelou’s first three books, but also
puts to rest Maya’s feelings of self-doubt and insecurities about motherhood
From the time Maya was an infant, she had experienced many events which
distorted her view on motherhood and the role of a “mother.” This skewed
perception created many conflicts throughout much of her life. However, by her
constant growing and evolving, Maya was able to overcome her altered views and
become a loving and devoted mother, daughter, and granddaughter.
Gather Together in Maya’s Name
II. Background Information
III. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
A. Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps
B. Move with Vivian Baxter in San Francisco
C. Maya’s pregnancy
IV. Gather Together In My Name
A. Theme of book
B. Maya’s career and the results
V. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas
A. Role in Porgy and Bess
B. Absence from Guy while on tour
C. Relationship closure
Angelou, Maya. Gather Together In My Name. New York: Random House,
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House,
Angelou, Maya. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. New
York: Random House, 1976.
Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and
Autobiographical Continuity.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol 77.
Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1993.
Neubauer, Carol E. “Maya Angelou: Self and A Song of Freedom in the Southern
Tradition.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol 77. Detroit, MI: Gale
Research Inc., 1993.
Vermillion, Mary. “Reembodying the Self: Representations of Rape in ‘Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl’ and ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1993.