Maya Angelou’s “Africa” was originally published in 1975 in her second volume of poetry, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. At the time of its publication, Angelou had already established herself as a prolific writer of both prose and verse. Her first two autobiographies had achieved tremendous success, and her first volume of poetry had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
“Africa” conveys several themes prevalent in Angelou’s works: oppression, racial tensions, violence, female power, freedom, and hope. Despite a fairly regular rhyme scheme, the irregular pattern of beats per line and lines per stanza make the poem an example of free verse. Given the poem’s title, its reverent tone, and its use of repetition, it reads as a kind of anthem—a love song for Africa that describes all the pain it had to endure before finding hope and joy. Africa is personified as a beautiful but vulnerable woman, as depicted through vivid imagery. However, just as beautiful women are often subjected to violence, the continent is eventually ravaged by the invasion of white Europeans. Colonization imposed religion and slavery upon Africans, leading to violence and the death of many natives. The poem eventually concludes with a message of hope: Africa will triumph and rise above its pain, like a woman rising after a violent experience that has knocked her down. “She” is ready to take back power and thrive again. The poem references the political unrest of 1960s and 1970s Africa: a time when most African colonies—with the notable exception of South Africa—were gradually gaining their political independence. Angelou herself lived in Ghana and Egypt in the 1960s, and was for a time married to a South African anti-apartheid activist. While living in Africa, she was deeply connected to the African-American expatriate community and campaigned for the civil rights movement that was then taking place in America.
Choice Magazine describes how the volume in which the poem was published celebrates the triumph of the African spirit over difficulties. Many have also noted that this poem pairs well with another in the same volume, “America.” In both poems, Angelou addresses the harsh realities of life in those lands and criticizes the awful deeds of the inhabitants—while still relaying hope for a brighter future.
Critic Lynn Z. Bloom notes that poems such as “Africa” gain considerable power when read aloud—preferably, by Angelou herself. Bloom describes how Angelou, when reading her poetry, moves “exuberantly…to reinforce the rhythms of the lines, the tone of the words.” Indeed, “Africa” is an homage to the indomitable spirit of the African people and their descendants—a poem that conjures pain and joy through the rhythms and rhymes of Angelou’s words.