I Know Why The Caged Bird Sing

2253 words - 9 pages

Maya Angelou has become a national celebrity since she read her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," at the inauguration of President Clinton. Before that, she was probably best known for her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What is it about Angelou's writing that is attractive to so many people? In large part, Maya Angelou's success as a writer is due to her easy-going style of writing that embraces the reader and conveys thoughts and emotions almost effortlessly. For this style, Angelou owes a great debt to her African-American heritage. Angelou is at her best when she builds on African-American traditions in her work, which she does in practically all of her prose writing, and slips into banality when she abandons them, which is frequently the case in her poetry.The African-American traditions that Angelou uses so well can be traced from Africa to America through cultural traditions, music, and religion. At an English-as-Second-Language workshop I attended at Metro State University in St. Paul, Dr. Beverly Hill discussed how writers from different cultures often have distinct rhetorical traditions on which they base their writing. One of the examples she used was the oral tradition of many African tribes which led to the adoption of the parable as a means of passing along information. Parable and storytelling became a teaching tool to pass along cultural and moral values from generation to generation. The slave experience in America transformed the oral tradition but did not destroy it, as African-American slaves adapted the old stories and developed new ones to fit in with the Christian religion to which they were being converted. The legacies of the pre-literate (oral) tradition can still be seen in black churches and music today. Chief among these is the use of storytelling as a means of communicating information, which develops in an oral culture because it is easier to remember information as a story than as a set of facts without context. The oral tradition also gives an added emphasis to the rhythm of the language, with short phrases and repetition used to make the story easier to comprehend and remember. The final characteristic, which also enhances understanding and memorization, is the conveyance of emotion. In the African-American tradition, the emotion usually starts out at a low smolder, which the author (or storyteller) builds upon until it's a full blown fire. After the climax, there is very little in the way of downward movement after the story because of the importance of leaving the reader with the powerful emotional impression. Angelou was introduced to the African-American oral tradition through the most obvious and important purveyor of them: the black church. Growing up in the segregated South with her extremely religious grandmother, Angelou went to church daily and learned to love the language of the church, a language that spills over into her writing to this day.The work in which Angelou most...

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