Through the analysis of Maya Angelou's work, poems such as Phenomenal Woman, A Brave Startling Truth, Still I Rise and Caged Bird, there are several themes and uses of rhetoric that are consistently prevalent. It is clear that the reality of Angelou's life greatly influenced her writing. For instance, her role throughout the Civil Rights Era and the hardship she had to face is acts as the universal theme of overcoming adversity. Maya Angelou expounds upon conventional rhetoric by not only utilizing tools such as rhyme and meter but also by incorporating repetition and shifts in tone to illuminate her universal theme of individuals overcoming adversity.
The main vehicle by which Angelou expresses a central idea in her poems is repetition. Certainly she utilizes other forms of rhetoric such as tone shifts and a classic rhyme scheme, however the most influential tool she uses in developing her themes is her use of repetition. For example, in “Still I Rise” her theme of overcoming adversity is strengthened by the repetition of the phrase “I rise”. Within most of the stanzas Angelou discusses a way in which the “you” in the poem discourages her, but each time she combats the spiteful actions with the phrase “I rise”. This steers the reader away from believing that the subject is discouraged and leads them to believe that the subject is truly overcoming an obstacle. In “Phenomenal Woman”, Angelou continually repeats the phrase “I am a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That's me”, in order to embellish the theme that a woman's beauty and power comes from the strength of her mentality. Within this poem, each stanza discusses the many ways the subject is considered phenomenal contrary to societal norms, which leads the reader to believe that the subject is strong. This use of repetition helps emphasize the confidence that is necessary for a woman’s mentality. All of this repetition brings the reader back to the central idea, and after being brought back to the central idea several times it truly begins to make an impact on the reader.
In addition to Angelou’s use of repetition, her use of tone shifts also help to illuminate her inspirational themes. The tone shifts allow the reader to compare different subjects within the poem and thereby better understand the complexities behind her themes. For example, in “Caged Bird” Angelou shifts back and forth when discussing the lives of the free and caged birds. While describing the free bird Angelou writes, “A free bird leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream,” and follows follows this stanza in describing the caged bird writing, “But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage.” The shift in tone from the almost careless free bird to the limited life of the caged bird allows the reader to sympathize with the caged bird more easily. It also helps the reader relate to the subject more easily, which in turn helps evoke a stronger connection between the reader and the poem. Angelou’s use of rhetoric is varied and demonstrates the versatility of her writing, and it still manages to convey some of the most powerful messages and themes.
A common theme is found throughout the majority of Maya Angleou’s work. This theme revolves around her personal struggle of being an African American woman in the 1950s and 1960s. African Americans faced injustice in almost every aspect of their lives at this time. Angelou was a significant civil rights activist, and worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr to suppress racial discrimination. Throughout these times of racial injustice, she overcame adversity with her perseverance and determination, both of which can clearly be seen throughout many of her poems. Wayne A Holst would agree, and said that, ¨The poignant beauty of Angelous writing enhances rather than masks the candor with which she addresses the racial crisis through which America was passing.¨ Throughout Angleou’s poetry, prominently ¨Still I Rise¨ and ¨Caged Bird,¨ Angelou exhibits her drive to overcome adversity and to ultimately suppress discriminatory thoughts in America.
In the poem ¨Caged Bird,¨ Angelou’s common theme of overcoming adversity is demonstrated through her symbolic vocabulary and structure of the poem. Two birds are the subjects in the poem, the free bird symbolizing the white man and the caged bird symbolizing the black man, to compare the easy life of the free bird and the life of the caged bird that clearly struggles emotionally and physically. Each stanza focuses of either the free or caged bird, and describes their lives accordingly. When Angelou discusses the free bird, she exhibits how he is able to be carefree and have access to many things, such as food, without a trouble in the world. Angelou's emphasis on the bird's lackadaisical attitude may hint at the fact that many white Americans in the 50s and 60s were slightly ignorant. Like the bird that "floats downstream," many men and women stuck to the status quo and thought little to nothing of discrimination towards African Americans. The description of the caged bird, however, would hopefully suppress the ignorance of white Americans with Angelou's strong word choice to express the pain of the black man. The second stanza, the introductory stanza for the caged bird, immediately displays a melancholic tone, but also the fight the bird is willing to give. Angelou discusses how the bird is unable to see past "bars of rage" and that " his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his mouth to sings." The African American population was unable to participate in the majority of anything social or political in the early 1960s and decades before. They were stuck in a cage, as Angelou describes. One of the only thing that was permissible, was the citizens' right to the first amendment and freedom of speech. Many civil rights activists, Angelou included, used their voices, as the caged bird does, as a weapon to not only express frustration, but also their confidence in order to suppress derogatory opinion. Probably one of Angelou’s best examples is her poem, “Still I Rise,” where she directly exhibits her drive to overcome adversity and to stand up for her people. As once quoted by Carol Neubauer, "Angelou turns her attention to the lives of black people in America from the time of slavery to the rebellious 1960s. Her themes deal broadly with the painful anguish suffered by blacks forced into submission, with guilt over accepting too much, and with protest and basic survival." Throughout the poem, Angelou constantly expresses that she will rise and overcome her personal struggles, despite any criticism or obstacle.
There is no doubt that Angelou has the ability to connect with her audience via symbolic and extremely powerful word choice. Through analysis of her poetry and research of her background, it has been found that her constant emphasis on overcoming internal and external struggles proves that she is extremely driven in promoting change in the American public. Angelou is a symbol for many minorities in America, as she has shown them that they should never be afraid to stand up for what is right.