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Maya Angelou

On Aging

Some more challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poet looks at the process of aging. She calls for understanding, not pity. The person beneath the aging body, she says, is still the same person who was always there, even though her body is slowing. Nevertheless, the sense should be one of gratitude and not sympathy.


Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in April 1928. Her life story is a remarkable one, growing up in poor circumstances and a victim of a shattered home.

She was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was just eleven years old, an incident which caused her to become selectively mute for many years until she had her self-confidence and honour restored to her through the help of a friend.

Her shocking childhood, however, led to a struggle to maturity and she fell pregnant because of her efforts to prove she was a woman. Her marriages to both Tosh Angelou and Paul Du Feu ended in divorce.

She nevertheless overcame all these disadvantages and found a niche on the stage and later on the screen, acting in several award-winning productions. She has also made a name for herself in the area of film directing.

Today Maya Angelou is renowned as a poet and writer, an actress and director, and was an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement.

She is the author of 12 best-selling books and innumerable poems. Indeed, she is one of the most prolific Black authors of the modern day, and the recipient of numerous top awards. She also speaks several languages fluently.

She has been described as one of the great voices of contemporary literature and as a remarkable Renaissance woman because of her ability to overcome all obstacles and utilize her talents to the full.

Despite her lack of any form of college education, she has lectured at several universities. In 1981 she assumed a lifetime position as the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She has subsequently been awarded Honorary Doctorates from several leading American universities.

In January 1993 she was asked to read one of her poems at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, an honour only happening once before and that to the great American poet, Robert Frost.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"When you see me walking, stumbling,
Don't study and get it wrong.
'Cause tired don't mean lazy
And every goodbye ain't gone."
  • What is the significance of the words, "Don't study and get it wrong"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What would people usually think when they saw someone "walking, stumbling"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the person mean when she says, "And every goodbye ain't gone"? (2)

[Need help?]

"I'm the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain't I lucky I can still breathe in."
  • How could the aging person be "the same person I was back then"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the words, "But ain't I lucky I can still breathe in." Why does the poet not use a question mark? (4)

[Need help?]


"Climax" is a language device which is used to enhance the meaning and power of poetry.
  • What is meant by "climax"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the poet's use of climax in the final four lines of this poem. (4)

[Need help?]

Does the poet paint a positive or a negative picture of old age? Explain. (4)

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The poet is an African American. How does she reveal this within the poem? (4)

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