For those who are followers of Angelou’s work, the title of Equality is a very promising message. Angelou’s writing style, story, and typical literary content makes the topic of equality a very natural one for her to write about and discuss in promising and impressive fashion. The topic of equality is hardly a new or unique idea, and thankfully the concept has received a great deal of momentum since Angelou was born in 1928. Her input on the topic in the form of her distinctive poetry offers a compelling message that has remained relevant since the moment it was written. Angelou’s use of metaphor, imagery, repetition, and notable word choice creates a significant and noticeable atmosphere that stays with the reader long after the poem has been read and re-read.
Equality is a poem, which can be read in full here, without a stable form, but rather the structure of the poem flows in accordance with its own content. This first verse, for example, follows a similar structure to the other main verses in that its rhyming pattern is ABCB and that is contains a number of thematic elements that will be repeated later. It is different in that the first eight lines of the poem are all one verse, in contrast to the use of two quatrains that will be employed later on. In this case, the content simply flows naturally from one idea to the next, and these eight lines work well as one verse, without the interruption of thought that a line break usually creates. Throughout the poem, Angelou employs a similar style, with that rhyming pattern holding true, though occasionally using half-rhymes rather than full ones. The poem is written as a message spoken by a single narrator addressing another figure, but is written as though the “I” is representative of a larger group and the “you” representative of something similar.
In the first verse, the speaker discusses the idea of being seen, and how this idea does not necessarily mean as much as it might. The idea of being seen “through a glass which will not shine” brings to mind the image of a pair of glasses, a spyglass, or similar lens through which one person can see something else — except that the glass does not shine. This metaphor suggests that while the speaker is seen, they are not necessarily seen entirely, or understood for having been seen. The “though” in the third line makes it seem as though the following description of “standing boldly” is something that is being missed by the observer. The speaker is seen, but their pose, their demeanour, their intentions are not.
The second half of the first verse begins with an oddly-worded phrase: “You do own to hear me faintly.” Grammatically, this makes little sense (“own to” in general is not a logical phrase), but here, the use of the word “own” is telling. Ownership over another person, and “owning” the ability to listen to them, albeit faintly, is an indication that the topic of the poem is likely centred around slavery and taking away the freedoms of another individual. In this light, the “I” of the poem likely represents those who have been oppressed and sold into slavery, while the “you” represents their forced masters. While the themes expressed thus far could be applied to many elements of injustice, the word choice here is indicative of something specific and markedly terrible.
The last two lines of the verse use a metaphor for hope to signal a slight “silver lining” to the piece. The drums of the speaker is not likely a literal reference, but another way of expressing a personal and intimate aspect of self that endures throughout even the worst of hardships. When the speaker declares that the rhythm never changes, it suggests that this beat or rhythm has been with them for a long time, and their own terrible experiences cannot change the things that are a part of them. In the context of slavery, this brings to mind the musical culture native to various African peoples. If this is the intended reference, it suggests that the music they grew up with in freedom is still a part of them, and their memory of it and desire to follow it cannot be broken, no matter what is done to them.
Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.
These next two lines use repetition to make a powerful point more pronounced. The meaning behind the words is simple enough to decipher — the speaker equates equality with freedom. They will still live in the same area physically, surrounded by the same people, but if they are equals among those people, they will consider themselves liberated. With the implied theme of slavery prominent in the first verse, these lines take on additional contextual meaning, though it is hardly necessary to think too deeply on it — to be equal in a society is to be free within it.
The repetition of the line, as well as the way the two lines separate two similarly-structured verses has a strong influence on the pace of the poem. It breaks up the verses and cuts through the atmosphere as well, by introducing a hopeful, almost idealistic (which is a sad commentary in itself, as yearning for equality should never be an idealistic thing to do) element to the poem following a verse that has its own darker and more downcast atmosphere. It almost reads as chorus in a song, and this may have even been the author’s intention — though it is also likely that the substantial repetition surrounding this line is to highlight its immeasurable importance to the meaning of the whole.
After the break for the call for equality, the poem resumes its previous structure, with the noticeable difference of breaks between the two quatrains that were merged in the first verse. The first line of this next verse gives the poem a harsh, accusing tone, and gives the speaker a kind of moral high ground. The atmosphere in this verse is only slightly altered from the first one, and reads in a more mournful, almost pleading tone, though the words have bite to them. The speaker is accused of being immoral or indecent, and told that their life consists of being with one man and then the other as often as they deem necessary. The use of the word “wanton,” along with the common expression of moving “from man to man” suggests that the speaker is a prostitute, or can be compared to one in their personal life. Interestingly, the accusation is not denied, but rather is met with another accusation from the narrator: that someone who judges them for the things they do is someone who could not understand being in a position to do them.
The language used here is powerful. The speaker describes their own self as being “a shadow” in the eyes of their accuser, suggesting that they are beneath them in their social hierarchy. However, they follow up this observation by pointing out that because of this metaphorical distance between the two, the accuser cannot possibly understand their own accusation. In a way, the speaker is placed above the accuser not by denying their words, but by defending their actions.
In this verse, the notion of the “you” and the “I” is challenged somewhat, because the idea of social injustice is harder to apply here. If the speaker is a sex worker, for example, then the other’s judgement of them only makes sense if they chose the industry, as their response makes sense if they had reasons for choosing that industry that others might not understand. While the motifs established so far remain strong — equality, persecution, and willful blindness, for instance — the simple roles of the “you” and the “I” are challenged somewhat.
In the next verse, the “I” becomes a “we,” and this amplifies the impression the reader has of a group that is being discriminated against. The “painful history” and “shameful past” suggest that the speaker is one of the latest generations amidst a long line of persecuted or hated people, all of whom simply yearned for equality. The idea of slavery and the long period of racist discrimination that has followed it continues to fit with the words of the poem. The last verse, which described the speaker as being either in an unfortunate personal situation or an undesirable industry for employment makes it plausible that while the speaker may not be a slave in their society, they may be experiencing racist discrimination following a time when such a thing was sadly commonplace.
The verse does revisit the theme of hope in the work, however, by stating that the “we” of the poem has endured their difficult history and painful lineage, and that the speaker responds to everything they’ve described in this poem by moving forward and not giving up. The final line, “and you keep on coming last” could have a plethora of meanings depending on the actual roles of the “I” and the “you.” It implies that while the speaker and their comrades are moving forward, the rest of their more privileged society are complacent and are metaphorically standing still by accepting their lots, in direct contrast to those who seek to improve their lives.
After this, the credo equating freedom with equality is repeated, once again affirming the message intended for the work and breaking up the flow of the harsh, unapologetic verses. The sense of repetition is obvious here, and its reasoning clear — this is the message that must remain with the reader, and possibly with the narrator, above all others.
The next verse returns the role of accuser to the speaker, who speaks in an almost commanding way to their society here, demanding that they “confess” their wilful blindness to the injustices they create. In the narrator’s mind, it is impossible that anyone is entirely oblivious to pain seen on such a massive scale, and they know that their tormentor us aware of their own wrongdoings. The image of blinders and paddings is an effective metaphor for those who would rather not acknowledge an ugly truth, and it is used to great effect here, as the speaker confesses their own moments of weakness in the form of pain and tears that others have heard and seen, but chosen to ignore.
In the final full verse of the poem in this structure, the perspective shifts slightly. It begins as a continuation of the previous command, and begins with the word “hear,” indicating that they are once again telling someone else to “remove the padding” around their ears and listen, but this time the sound is not a literal one. While the flow of blood does make some sound, it is not something that can easily be literally listened to — but a heartbeat is a symbolic noise with great meaning. The beat of a heart is being compared to the beat of a drum, and in this way, the speaker’s literal drive for life is metaphorically one and the same with the culturally significant beat of drums, that remnant of home, repeated here to conclude the verse and remind the reader and the other alike that despite the tears and vulnerability expressed here, they are as strong as ever, and will not give up on what it is they truly need:
Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.
In her life, Maya Angelou was an African-American poet and civil rights activist, though these terms seem almost simple when applied to her. Throughout her life, she has worked in the film, television, and theatre industries, in the music industry, in the sex trade industry, and, finally, in the literary industry. Her experiences throughout life are well-documented in her autobiographies and collections of poetry, but she is widely remembered for her civil activism. She worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and was considered a spokesperson for people of colour across the United States. She constantly made a point of critiquing what was considered normal, and was not afraid of demanding change.
From her childhood, Angelou was the subject of discrimination. In one notable example, she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight. When she told her family what had happened, they reported the crime. The man was found guilty and served a jail sentence of one day. He was later murdered, and Angelou became mute, afraid to speak for fear that her voice, in reporting the crime, had killed her abuser.
Throughout Equality, there are clear themes of discrimination, which line up with Angelou’s public contributions towards the fight for civil rights. Her own experiences make it very likely that she is the narrator of the poem. This is particularly notable within the second and third verses (after the first “equality and I will be free”), where Angelou is more than likely discussing her years working as a prostitute and table dancer, among other similar jobs. Angelou joined this industry, largely illegally, to care for her newborn son while fighting against racism in society — this is likely a sliver of the meaning behind “could you ever understand?” in that verse.
For around ten years, Angelou worked in the music industry, and brought that element of culture to the fight for equality with Martin Luther King Jr. She released her first album, Miss Calypso, in 1957, which is recorded in the calypso style, an Afro-Caribbean style of music that may be the inspiration behind the repeated references to the drums and the beat that never changes.
The themes of Equality and the themes of Angelou’s autobiographical works share many similarities with one another. It is clear that this is a deeply personal piece for its author, and is designed to resonate strongly with the reader by bringing them into Angelou’s own world, just for long enough to understand what it is she spent her life fighting for as best as she could.