A Close Look at Maya Angelou’s "Even the Stars Look Lonesome"
Beginning with the touching dedication and ending on the very last page, I could not put down Even the Stars Look Lonesome. I laughed and cried my way to the very end while learning about life through Maya Angelou’s eyes and heart. Even the Stars Look Lonesome is just one example from the vast body of Angelou’s work. Rooted in the American literary tradition and using American themes, Angelou is a great example of a writer of American literature. In this book, she shares her observations, views, experience, wisdom, and spirit in a collection of twenty essays.
Angelou shares her experience of marriage and knowledge she had gained from that experience. The book opens with “A House can Hurt, a Home Can Heal.” In this essay, she describes her struggling marriage by explaining the bad houses that she and her husband lived in. In moving from one bad house to another, what she calls her best marriage has fallen apart. She implies that maybe they were bad houses because they weren’t homes. She divorced and moved from northern California to North Carolina. She moved from had houses to a home that healed her spirit.
In a later essay, “Loving Learning,” she shares another experience from an earlier marriage. Attracted to his exceptional knowledge, she married Vusumsi Make, A South African freedom fighter. In their whirlwind romance and quick marriage, Angelou was attracted to his incredible intellect. However, the romance soon faded, leaving the marriage lifeless. In both cases, Angelou does not regret her marriages but appreciates the early passion and lessons learned.
Lessons from her mother
Angelou dedicated several essays to her mother. Tears rolled down my face as I read “Mother and Freedom.” The essay begins with an account of how her mother freed her into adulthood at the early age of seventeen. Angelou writes, “She gave me a smile, half proud and half pitying ‘All right, you’re a woman. You don’t have a husband, but you’ve got a three month old baby…” (Angelou 47). All of a sudden, the reader is back in the present with Angelou, watching her mother dying in the next room. In facing her mother’s death, she tries to remember the lesson her mother taught about freeing loved ones.
She shares more of her mother’s lessons in “The Rage Against Violence” and “Those Who Really Know Teach.” In “The Rage Against Violence,” she tells the story of her mother’s encounter with a possible attacker in a rundown ghetto apartment building. She learned from her mother that in order to overcome violence, we, as individuals and as a society, need to get made before we have the chance to get scared and become vulnerable. “Those Who Really Know Teach” is a funny story about a trip she and her mother took to the supermarket. Angelou shares the lesson that the older, wiser generations need to pass down their knowledge to the young, and the young need to listen and accept that wisdom, even if it is about cooking.
Africa and African-American culture
Angelou gives many pages to thoughts about Africa, the African-American experience, and the African culture and traditions. In “Art of Africa” and “Art for the Sake of the Soul, “ she makes the point that “we need art to live fully and to grow healthy” (Angelou 133). In Africa, art is functional; it is not just decoration. African art is a tradition passed down through the ages based on religious belief and native customs. Art brings people together and creates camaraderie among the people. Art is for everyone. Angelou believes that this hold true for African-American art as well. However, it is her opinion that the contribution of African-American art and culture to the Western world is not necessarily recognized.
The lack of recognizing the African-American contribution to society is destroying the culture and community. “Rural Museums – Southern Romance” is an essay about the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge where, in Angelou’s opinion, a romantic picture of slaver is pained. She believes that African-Americans don’t face the truth about slavery and hide from their African roots. When Angelou asks him for directions, a black bellhop had never even heard of the museum that is only five minutes down the road. He doesn’t seem to want to know either. In “Africa,” black families don’t want Angelou to teach their suburban children dances that look African. Angelou’s belief that African-Americans hide from the African roots rings true when these parents say, “Why is she teaching African dance to our children? We haven’t lost anything to Africa” (Angelou 14).
The breakdown of culture is dividing and destroying the African-American community. Angelou questions this division in “Danger and Denial” and “I Dare to Hope.” She thanks those in the community who have had the courage to keep this division from destroying the community. She thanks black women in general in “They Came to Stay,” and a specific black woman, Oprah Winfrey, in “Poetic Passage.”
The struggle of being African-American and a woman permeates this book. In the essays that I haven’t mentioned above, Angelou touches on many other subjects such as aging, the relevance of fame in her life, sensuality, and sexuality. “Aging” is a reflection of how Angelou had learned to accept the bad, and even negotiate with it, while recognizing the good as she ages well beyond her expected life span. She always believed that she would die when she was twenty-eight. “Godfrey Cambridge and Fame” is an exploration of how she looks at her own fame. “A Song to Sensuality,” and “Age and Sexuality” tell it like it is. Angelou believes that sensuality and sexuality are essential to life. She also believes that one should not replace the other.
Maya Angelou has taken the pages of Even the Stars Look Lonesome to share her life lessons. In my opinion, her mission for this is best explained in “Art for the Sake of the Soul.”
I have written of the black American experience, which I know intimately. I am always talking about the human condition in general and about society in particular. What it is like to be human, and American, what makes us weep, what makes us fall and stumble and somehow rise and go on. (Angelou 130).
Even the Stars Look Lonesome has been well received; Angelou has accomplished her mission. A book review in The Atlanta Constitution called the book “insightful” and “heartfelt.” The article refers to Angelou as a “beloved Renaissance woman” who has a “special brand of no-nonsense wisdom” (Woods 1-2).
This positive review shows that Even the Stars Look Lonesome fits into Angelou’s well received body of work. A large part of Angelou’s work is what is referred to by many as an autobiographical series. Even thought Even the Stars Look Lonesome is not a narrative, like many of Angelou’s autobiographical works, it is still autobiographical. Each essay is a glimpse into her life and her thoughts on life. I would say that this collection of essays fits into Angelou’s work between her autobiographical narratives and her poetry.
The themes in Even the Stars Look Lonesome are themes common in much of Angelou’s work and American literature. Some of the themes present in this work include self-discovery, death, separation, sexuality, race, marriage, work, motherhood, and the journey of life. The themes of death, motherhood, and self-discovery come through in the scene I described earlier from “Mother and Freedom” where Angelou’s mother is dying of cancer. The theme of the journey of life is one common in black women’s American autobiography. According to Andrews, “the idea of life as a pilgrimage, a mission, or a crusade in the autobiographies of women…exemplifies the commitment of many black women to self-discovery through immersion in the world outside the domestic sphere” (Andrews 200).
Angelou’s themes are similar to those of work by other American black women because her work is rooted in the literature of African-American literature. The themes and the style of Angelou’s work is rooted in history, because the “desire of the modern black autobiographer to liberate the voice of the self by inscribing it into community is not a twentieth century phenomenon” (Andrews 198). Even the Stars Look Lonesome and Angelou’s work in general can be linked to the slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to Lupton, Even the Stars Look Lonesome is a “narrative voyage, which moves geographically from America to Africa, [and] echoes the patterns of the slave narratives – with its search for freedom, for self-development, for community.” (Lupton 810).
Angelou had been called “perhaps the most significant figure in autobiography” (Lupton 814). The style and themes of her work are based on her life experiences, her knowledge of her heritage, and the tradition of American literature, especially the slave narratives. However, her style and themes are unique because she defies tradition. The traditional narrative begins and ends with each specific narrative. Angelou’s work has been regarded as a series because she does not follow this tradition. She creates her own style by “creating from each end a new beginning, relocating the center of some luminous place in a volume yet to be” (Lupton 258). Andrews says, “Angelou’s freedom from her predecessor’s anxieties let Angelou be the more successful in reclaiming her origins for the purposes of representing herself as a black woman” (198).
Maya Angelou’s mission is to discuss the human and American experience. It is her goal to share the knowledge that she has gained about the world with her audience. I believe that she does this in Even the Stars Look Lonesome. She accomplishes her goal while creating a piece of American literature by using American themes and drawing on her African-American heritage.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.