Our Grandmothers by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a well-known poet during her lifetime, and is remembered today for her remarkable literary talents and strong capacity to spread her messages using powerful language and intelligent poetic conventions. She utilized many different writing styles depending on the kind of message she was looking to spread, and was a true master of her own style. Our Grandmothers demonstrates her consistency, her intelligent word choice, and her strong ability to convey what she felt and believed in through her standout poetry.


Our Grandmothers Analysis

She lay, skin down in the moist dirt,
(…)
branches.

The verse that begins Our Grandmothers, which can be read in full here, is interesting because, at first glance, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the title. The verse is written in such a way as to de-humanize the setting. There is an unnamed “she,” who is described as laying down in the dirt, who is being hunted by hounds and humans. Angelou uses alliteration and strong use of detail to heighten the realism of the verse, but it is not at all clear what is happening regardless — the language serves to suggest that the “she” is not human, but rather a deer or fox — the prize of the hunt.

She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward
freedom,
I shall not, I shall not be moved.

In the second stanza, it is implied that the “she” described in the verse is an escaped slave, and not an animal at all. That she lifts her head “a nod toward / freedom” is an important word choice, because it emphasizes the character’s need to be as close to their freedom as is possible; even if they are only marginally closer, it is movement worth making. The dehumanizing implication in the first verse suggests that it is being told from the escapee’s point of view and the slavers’ at the same time — they see her as property, but this does not change who she is, to notice the whispering of leaves and recognize the “longing” of the hounds.

This verse also introduces the firm creed that Angelou is commonly cited as having created: I shall not be moved (which is also the name of the collection this poem appears in). The repetition of “I shall not” serves to solidify the themes of defiance and will, beginning the process of creating a character for the reader to sympathize with in a more real way than sympathizing with the idea of an escaped slave.

She gathered her babies,
(…)
from us tomorrow?

The next verse introduces the protagonist’s young children, and immediately notes that the most prominent aspect of those children are the tears on their faces. The “morning of madness,” which uses alliteration for dramatic effect, suggests that the events of this poem are taking place around dawn, which means it is going to be much more difficult for the small family to hide from their captors in a short while. The final two lines are read as dialogue from the children, who are scared of losing their mother and want to know whether they will be caught.

Yes.

(…)

saying with me,


I shall not be moved.

In this verse, the mother answers her children’s question, and there are no comforting lies or attempts at disillusionment. “Yes” is repeated three times, each on its own complete line, a hard-hitting truth put forth as bluntly as it can be put. Again, Angelou’s word choice is what gives this piece its power. “Yes,” the mother says, “yes he will, if we don’t escape him.” Their fate is in their own hands. When she says “your lives, / never mine to live, / will be executed,” she is lamenting over the idea that her lost freedom might be redeemed in watching her children grow up free. She believes she can live vicariously through her happy children, but she must first see them free, otherwise they will all be lost in the vicious system that’s taken over their lives. Her children must believe, as she believes, that they will not be moved, that they will resist and escape and claim their own lives — they will move. They will not be moved.

In Virginia tobacco fields,
(…)
and though I perish daily,

I shall not be moved.

This next verse seems to summarize the former world of the escaped slave. Here the narration notes that the woman worked in a Virginian tobacco field for a very wealthy landowner (as Steinway pianos are rather expensive luxuries), and that she has always “cried against calamity,” a rather cacophonous alliteration that emphasizes the harsh nature of her former life. The final three lines of the stanza (including the third repetition of “I shall not be moved,” which stands alone for effect) switch from the omniscient perspective of the storyteller to the words of the mother, who acknowledges that she “perish[ed] daily,” but the final line suggests that while she was beaten and hurt, her spirit was never broken, which has led to her escape in the present.

 Her universe, often

(…)

Iniquity has bound me to his bed.


yet, I must not be moved.

When Angelou writes that her “universe” is usually written out as “one black body,” she is pointing out that as a woman of colour, the protagonist in Our Grandmothers did not exist beyond her own self. Others did not see her as being a part of a community, or an important part of the system — she simply was herself, and it was all she was given capacity to be. She knows that her life has not been her own, and she names it iniquity — massively unjust. And yet, she continues to speak her creed, refusing to allow injustice to hold her back.

She heard the names,
(…)
I have a certain way of being in this world,


and I shall not, I shall not be moved.

One thing Maya Angelou is commonly remembered for is her blunt honesty when discussing topics that were important to her. The crude list of insulting names given to those who were considered “sub-human” is simply placed within the poem, marks on a “swirling ribbon of history,” an interesting metaphor for the ways ideals and morality so easily bend and shift as time goes by. Knowing this, the woman, speaking again, declares that she knows herself to be beyond obscenities, and that she will not be moved to believe otherwise.

No angel stretched protecting wings
(…)
shoeless.

Examining the upbringing of the woman’s children is an effective way to discuss her motherly nature as well as the horror of her situation. The narration notes that there was no angel to protect her children, which suggests that an angel was needed, since she was not physically capable of defending her own against the “confusion of their lives.” There is a simile used here, comparing her children to weeds; weeds are everywhere at once, and very agitating for the person whose property they grow on. In the same way, her children were always exploring and trying to learn more about what was presumably the home of their slaver, from whom she could not protect them — so she “sent them away,” presumably a reference to the present escape. The word “underground” could be a reference to the “underground railway,” a widespread and systematic effort to send escaped slaves into countries that did not recognize them as slaves, but rather as free and independent people.

The word that ends the verse — “shoeless” — is a very powerful one. It stands on its own line, and very simply tells the reader how difficult that journey has been by describing the likely pained condition of those children’s feet, doing all that running barefoot, out of desperate necessity.

When you learn, teach.
(…)
As for me,


I shall not be moved.

This verse is unique in that it is written entirely from the woman’s perspective. She imparts small bits of wisdom to the reader, reminding them and herself of who she is, and repeating that she will not be moved.

She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.
(…)
Black Grandmother, Enter here.


Into the crashing sound,
(…)
along, and stand as ten thousand.

These two verses are closely connected with one another, each discussing the importance of faith to the escaped slave in an almost introductory way. In this, Angelou continues to round out the personality and essence of her character, to create her in the most realistic way possible, in that one moment, hiding in a canebrake from slavers who would steal her freedom. These verses are filled with religious imageries, invoking images of fire, altars, finery, and welcome. From the first line, it is clear that she feels as though she is a vast distance from her destination, her freedom, that sign that says “Black Grandmother, enter here.” And then the ocean becomes a different metaphor, one for wickedness and anger, something that can destroy and sweep away, never to be found again. She declares that this will not be the fate of her faith, that she will continue to envision herself in the “finery of faith,” that her faith will continue to be a fiery passion, and that she has the strength of ten thousand people when she is defending herself, her children, and her faith in God.

The Divine upon my right
(…)
at the latch on Freedom’s gate.


The Holy Spirit upon my left leads my
(…)
righteous and into the tents of the free.

The next two comparatively short verses discuss how faith and God compels the speaker to continue to live, to push forward and continue to seek her freedom. That “Freedom” is capitalized in the first of these verses suggests that it is a reference not to physical freedom, but rather to Heaven, a bond to doing the right thing whenever possible, and a reminder that she will not lose her hope so long as she has faith.

These momma faces, lemon-yellow, plum-purple,
(…)
Annie to Zenobia.

The list of women that is the focus for this verse is a bit of a strange one at first glance — some names are ancient, others modern by the standards of the poem. Mary Bethune, for example, was an American civil rights activist who lived at the same time as Angelou; Zenobia, on the other hand, was a queen in Syria in the third century. These examples of powerful, strong, historic women as a comparison to “these momma faces” reminds the reader that the most influential figures throughout history have been people, the same as those who look up to them, and that this woman trying to escape her captors can be Sheba the Sojourner and Mary Bethune both in her present struggles.

She stands
(…)
children to understanding.

The physical-world descriptions in this verse suggest that there has been a leap in time from the story of the poem, and that the woman now has entered a society that does not recognize slavery. Despite this, she stands in the welfare lines, and considers an abortion clinic, the epitome of the idea of “pro-choice,” and feels completely drained of her capacity to choose her lot in life. These entire verses speak to the idea of feeling lost, consumed by a strange society that is comprised of lonely street corners where it is implied she must turn to prostitution for money. Just before that is an image of her singing in church, and after it, the love of a classroom, of an education that slaves are never granted. There is enormous emotional struggle within this part of the poem, significant confusion and many, many contrasting images that all look to the idea of confusion as being newly prevalent in this woman’s life — despite the escape from “the confusions of their lives.” It seems that this verse is trying to say that life never stopped being complicated, confusing, or difficult for the woman who is now a former slave.

Centered on the world’s stage,
(…)
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,


for I shall not be moved.

The last verse of the poem speaks strongly to the theme of understanding and accepting oneself as a means of achieving inner peace. This poem has seen a woman evading slavers and telling her children the worst that could happen; it has included feeling lost in an ocean and feeling gross injustices — and yet, at its conclusion, the woman sings for all the world to hear that whatever anyone else thinks about her, the simple truth is that she cannot be undone, will not be broken… and shall not be moved.

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