‘Africa’ by Maya Angelou is a three stanza poem separated into two sets of eight lines and one set of nine. Angelou has not chosen to conform this poem to a regular pattern of rhyme or rhythm. Although, there are sections that are more consistent than others. For instance, the first stanza has a rhyme scheme of abcbdeae and lines made up of four beats.
This does not last though. As the peace and steady life described in the first stanza turns into the violence of the second, the patterns dissolve. There are nine lines in this section, throwing off any attempt at replicating the previous pattern of rhyme.
Some of the lines maintain the four syllable precedent but others have five syllables. Those that do are more often than not the more shocking of the lines. Such as, “took her young daughters.” This is a vague description of rape that should come as a surprise to a reader. The extra syllable helps to convey this feeling through rhythm as well.
Additionally, the most important element of this piece is Angelou’s choice to use an extended metaphor to describe the continent of Africa. By utilizing the metaphor of a woman Angelou creates a greater sympathy for the deep and long-lasting plight of the African people. Readers are better able to sympathize and empathize with a fellow human being. The suffering is more tangible, and more outrageous when a specific human face is the midst of it. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Africa
‘Africa’ by Maya Angelou describes the plight of the African continent through the extended metaphor of a beautiful woman.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that Africa is a woman who has deserts for hair and “mountains” for breasts. She is truly beautiful, and incredibly strong.
The next lines become darker. Brigands arrive on the shores of the continent and take everything in sight. The women are raped and the men sold into the slave trade. Culture is destroyed and Africa is metaphorically on the ground.
In the final stanza the woman, embodying the continent, stands up. She screams out everything that has occurred and refuses to be put down for a moment longer. Africa strides out from her past of death into a new, stronger future.
Analysis of Africa
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing “Africa.” Angelou has chosen to approach an outline of the land through an extended metaphor using personification. Personification refers to text in which a writer chooses to describe an object or animal through attributes normally connected to human beings.
In this case, Africa is being spoken of as if she is a woman. The story picks up in the middle of a normal day in her life. She lives, and “Thus” lays “sugarcane.” This is stated as if it occurs without question.
Next, the speaker turns to the woman’s looks. She has,
deserts her hair
golden her feet
These would normally be strange descriptors for a beautiful woman. In this case though they make perfect sense. Africa as a country has many deserts, and is wrapped in “golden” colours. This description continues with mention of her “mountain” like “breasts” and “two Niles” which serve as her tears.
If one did not understand that Angelou’s speaker was describing the continent of Africa, it should be clear at this point. The way the speaker has described “her” is how she has been “through the years.” Nothing much has changed. She has been “Black” since time began.
It is clear the speaker finds the woman, and therefore Africa to be a beautiful and noteworthy place. It appears as the subject of this piece and is already being portrayed with deep feeling.
As mentioned in the introduction, this is the only stanza that maintains a rhythm of four beats per line throughout its entirety. It suits this section of the poem as it is filled with images of peace. When the events become darker and more chaotic, the metrical pattern changes.
This occurs in the second stanza in which “brigands” arrive. A “brigand” is a member of a gang. They are often noted for their ambushes and mercilessness.
These men arrive “Over the white seas.” They are “rime white and cold.” These lines speak to the distant origins of the men. They come from a place that has no defined location. It is only “Over the…seas,” somewhere that Africa knows nothing about. The word “rime” is used here to mean a frost on a cold object. This is how the speaker, and Africa herself, sees the intruders.
They are not gentle, nor are they tentative in their actions. They took Africa’s,
Sold her strong sons.
The men have come, attacked and raped the women and taken the sons to sell into the slave trade. If this is not enough, the intrude further into the land and do what they can to “church…her with Jesus.” The men attempt to covert the population of the continent to Christianity. They strip the land of its resources, people, and culture. When these tactics do not work they turn to violence and “Thus she has lain.”
With the repetition of the line used in the first stanza the reader gets the idea that what has been done to Africa cannot be undone. She is laying in a ruin of what she once was.
Although her history has been tormented, and every horror that man could conceive of has fallen upon the land, Africa does not stay down. In the final section “she is rising.” The continent is not going to lay down in a state of mourning and defeat forever. It is time for her to,
remember her pain
remember the losses
The memories have not faded. She chooses to utilize them to her advantage rather than dwelling in the terror of the past. She “screams loud” of all that she has lost.
From this point on the continent and the woman it is being embodied as, is “striding.” It has picked itself up, refusing to lay down for a moment longer.