By Dr. Maya Angelou
My guilt is “slavery’s chains,” too long
the clang of iron falls down the years.
This brother’s sold, this sister’s gone,
is bitter wax, lining my ears.
My guilt made music with the tears.
My crime is “heroes, dead and gone,”
dead Vesey, Turner, Gabriel,
dead Malcolm, Marcus, Martin King
They fought too hard, the loved too well.
My crime is I’m alive to tell.
My sin is “hanging from a tree,”
I do not scream, it makes me proud.
I take to dying like a man.
I do it to impress the crowd.
My sin lies in not screaming loud.
This blog post aims to critique and analyse the poem entitled ‘ My Guilt’ which was written by the late Dr. Maya Angelou. In order to do this effectively, the structure of the poem will be discussed and the theme and the message will be explored.
The poem is written as a quintet with three stanza’s. Each stanza follows three main topics. The first stanza deals with the topic of guilt, the second deals with ‘crime’ and the third deals with sin. There is an escalation of seriousness as the poem progresses. The escalation of guilt to crime in the second stanza shows a shift from internal to external. Furthermore the shift from crime to sin illustrates the transition to the metaphysical realm. In entirety, the poem deals with remorse on three levels. These are internal, external and metaphysical. However, they are characterised by the words guilt, crime and sin respectively.
The theme of this poem is centred on remorse. This remorse is what the writer feels as people have died during periods of slavery, civil right movements and the adversity of discrimination and racism. They have fought ‘hard’ and ‘loved well’ to create a future for people to gain independence, have opportunities and a chance for a future. This is a bittersweet feeling rooted in rememberence, reverence and remorse. These three attribute are intertwined because the writer remember the ‘heroes, dead and gone’. She vividly remembers the old freedom fighter such as ‘Vesey, Turner and Gabriel’ and the new freedom fighters ‘ Malcolm, Marcus and Martin King’. They are all equally reverenced and embraced. The catch to this is that she is ‘alive to tell’. This shows the heaviness and importance of what they sacrificed but also the inability of the writer to receive the grace of the freedom given to her. She highlights how expensive her freedom is. It is so expensive that it costs slavery, death, and lynching.
There are two key messages I gathered from this poetry. The first is that no matter how far you’ve come you have to recognise the privilege you have been graced with and how you survived and grateful you should feel that you are ‘alive to tell’. The second is how you have been freed but are not making the most of it by ‘screaming loud’ of what it has cost to get to where you are today.
Thank you for reading.
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