Lexicon Valley

The Language of Maya Angelou

Associated Press file photo

How does a black American woman literally find her voice?  

After being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 7, Maya Angelou didn’t speak for several years to anyone except her older brother Bailey Johnson. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she writes, “It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.”

When she broke her silence after those years of reading and listening, Angelou was well on her way to mastery of the various linguistic styles around her, in the beginnings of a lifelong love for the “sound of language.” Although she never attended college, her gift with words was ultimately recognized by more than 50 honorary degrees and an endowed university professorship, not to mention a permanent legacy in the minds and classrooms of the nation. The language in her works reflect the different social and cultural worlds that she navigated, especially as a groundbreaking Black poet with access to Standardized English, African American English, and the great diversity of both. Every word Angelou wrote was a choice between one language variety or another, and the way in which she decided between them is a significant part of how her words resonate with so many people.


Perhaps surprisingly, Angelou was vocal during the Ebonics debate of the 1990s against the celebration of language variation. In a 1996 CNN article she stated: “The very idea that African-American language is a language separate and apart can be very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English.” Angelou recognized that having access to more prestigious varieties of English was a valuable social tool, and having a larger array of words to choose from meant greater power for her and her students.

To be sure, the majority of the text in Angelou’s autobiographies and poems was written in a standardized English, capturing her culture more in the lyrical form and subject matter, although she sometimes incorporated one of the five other languages that she spoke into her work. Even just in English, she occasionally used eye dialect, that is, alternate spellings that convey a specific pronunciation, so that the dialect strikes the eye through the printed word rather than appealing to the ear through sound or more accurate phonetic representation. When she does use eye dialect, it conveys dialogue in her autobiographies and allows her to take on the roles of characters in her poems.


The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who also wrote in both Standardized English and African-American English, was a strong influence on Angelou, and it was at the suggestion of Abby Lincoln Roach that Angelou adopted the name of her first autobiography from the Dunbar poem Sympathy. Dunbar writes:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,–
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
I know why the caged bird sings!


Like Dunbar, Angelou uses the more slangy ain’t throughout her poetry (at least 50 times in her collected poems), and in Riot 60’s employs git and nigga. She also used nigger spelled outright in other poems, explaining in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:


Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks.


In other examples of eye dialect, she uses apostrophes at the end of words, for example in Ain’t That Bad, to represent the pronunciation of -ing as -in, which is found in many dialects of English:

Puttin’ down that do-rag
Tightenin’ up my ‘fro
Wrappin’ up in Blackness
Don’t I shine and glow?  

Apostrophes are also used to represent initial syllable absence in No No No No in the line “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.” Similarly, other examples of syllable deletion are indicated without an apostrophe, as in phrases like “Saddy night dance” in Country Lover, where “Saddy” means Saturday.


In addition, Angelou uses what’s called copula absence (the absence of the verb to be) and the absence of third person singular s, common in African-American English, in The Pusher:

He bad
O he bad
He make a honky poot.
Make a honky’s
blue eyes squint
anus tight, when
my man look in
the light blue eyes.  

Angelou also uses both the language of the Black secular and the Black sacred. Her poems often employ the call and response form, which creates verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener by punctuating statements or ‘calls’ from the speaker with responses from the listener. Examples can be found in African-American speeches by leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., who was a contemporary of Angelou, as well as in spirituals, gospel songs and twelve bar blues. In Still I Rise, she combines call and response with the blues technique of understating and metaphorically generalizing one’s sexual and overall prowess:


Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Later, she continues:

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

And finishes with:

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


In call and response, the audience should be verbally and physically rising with her by the end of the poem like the congregation would in a Southern Black Baptist church at the end of the preacher’s sermon.

Notwithstanding Angelou’s position that African-American English not be taught in schools to the exclusion of Standardized English, her poem Sepia Fashion Show comments on the way that Standardized English is used as a way for African-American women to disassociate from their cultural and linguistic heritage. In it, she writes:


The Black Bourgeois, who all say “yah”
When yeah is what they’re meaning
Should look around, both up and down
Before they set out preening.
“Indeed” they swear, “that’s what I’ll wear
When I go country-clubbing,”
I’d remind them please, look at those knees
You got a Miss Ann’s scrubbing.


Angelou writes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings about the language of her father, about his properness and his use of r, which suggests that the use of r was quite absent in the speech of her community:


A year later our father came to Stamps without warning….

His voice rang like a metal dipper hitting a bucket and he spoke English. Proper English, like the school principal, and even better. Our father sprinkled ers and even errers in his sentences as liberally as he gave out his twisted-mouth smiles. His lips pulled not down, like Uncle Willie’s, but to the side, and his head lay on one side or the other, but never straight on the end of his neck. He had the air of a man who did not believe what he heard or what he himself was saying. He was the first cynic I had met. “So er this is Daddy’s er little man? Boy, anybody tell you errer that you er look like me?” He had Bailey in one arm and me in the other. “And Daddy’s baby girl. You’ve errer been good children, er haven’t you? Or er I guess I would have er heard about it er from Santa Claus.”


A few pages later, Angelou describes:

He sounded more like a white man than a Negro. Maybe he was the only brown-skinned white man in the world. It would be just my luck that the only one would turn out to be my father.

Angelou even judges the language of teachers during her stay St. Louis:

St. Louis teachers, on the other hand, tended to act very siditty, and talked down to their students from the lofty heights of education and whitefolks’ enunciation. They, women as well as men, all sounded like my father with their ers and errers. They walked with their knees together and talked through tight lips as if they were as afraid to let the sound out as they were to inhale the dirty air that the listener gave off.  


In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou writes also of language socialization, particularly at a time when certain language was punishable by spanking, in an explanation that encompasses religion and race:

Momma wouldn’t talk right then, but later in the evening I found that my violation lay in using the phrase “by the  way.” Momma explained that “Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light,” and anyone who says “by the way” is really saying, “by Jesus,” or “by God” and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house. When Bailey tried to interpret the words with: “Whitefolks use ‘by the way’ to mean while we’re on the subject,” Momma reminded us that “whitefolks’ mouths were most in general loose and their words were an abomination before Christ.”  

The language of Maya Angelou captures the discourse of a long life, particularly the life of the Southern Black community in the 20th century. A successful writer ultimately celebrates the idiolect, the intimate language of the individual and the individual experience. She wrote of memory and she wrote of love. Such language is profoundly personal. She gave us the language and the courage to tell our stories. Angelou sounded like my grandmother and all of the Winston-Salem Baptist English educators that I wanted to be as a child. They straddled eras and worlds. As a daughter of Winston-Salem, in Southern honorific tradition, where attention to titles conveys respect, I would have never dreamed of calling her by her first name. Rest in peace, Professor Angelou. You were quite literally who I wanted to be when I grew up. As she asked in Ain’t That Bad:

An’ ain’t we bad?
An’ ain’t we Black?
An’ ain’t we fine?