Literature and the Law: The Courts and African American Culture

African American authors Wanda Coleman and Maya Angelou have consistently demonstrated with their literary works the severe mistreatment, immoral actions, and discriminatory practices that occurred in the law system during the civil rights movement period.

Biography and Background

Maya Angelou


  • Born as Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928
  • She got her name "Maya" from her older brother calling her "my-a-sister"
  • At 3, her parents got divorced and she and her brother, Bailey, were sent to live with their grandma in Arkansas
  • At 7, she was molested by her mother's boyfriend when she went to visit her in Chicago
    • she was too ashamed to tell anyone about it but her brother, who told her uncles
    • a few days she heard that he had been beaten and kicked to death
    • she felt her words had killed him and became mute for 5 years
  • When she was 13, her and her brother returned to their mother in San Fransisco
    • she attended Mission High School and won a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Fransisco's Labor School
    • she dropped out of school to become San Fransisco's first woman cable car conductor
    • she returned to high school but became pregnant her senior year and gave birth to her son (Guy) a few weeks after graduation
  • Maya left home at 16 and became a single mother, supporting herself and Guy by being a waitress and a cook
  • 1952: Maya married Tosh Angelos (a Greek sailor)
  • She became a nightclub singer and took on the professional name "Maya Angelo"
    • she performed at the Purple Onion (featured below)

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  • She moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild
  • 1960: She fell in love with Vusumzi Make (South African civil rights activist) and they moved to Cairo, Egypt with Maya's son
    • She served as the editor of the English weekly The Arab Observer
    • They moved to Ghana and served as an instructor and administrative assistant for The University of Ghana School of Music and Drama
    • In Ghana she was a feature editor of The African Review and wrote for the Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company
    • She also met Malcom X on one of his visits to Ghana
  • In 1964 Maya returned to the U.S. to help Malcom X build the Organization of African American Unity
  • But shortly after she returned to the U.S. Malcom X was assassinated and the organization was never built
  • She also worked closely with other civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. (he requested her to be the Northern Coordinator at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
    • He was assassinated on her birthday
  • Maya began working on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which was published in 1970
    • It talks about her childhood to the birth of her son
  • In 1972 she wrote the screenplay Georgia, Georgia which was the first to ever be filmed by an African American woman and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize
  • She has been involved with many Presidents
    • President Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission
    • President Carter invited her to serve on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman
    • President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to be read at his 1993 inauguration ("On the Pulse of the Morning")
    • Concerning President Obama's win, she spoke "I'm so proud" (January 2009)
  • Today she teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and occasionally speaks at conferences
  • Some of her work
    • A Conceit
    • Alone
    • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    • Men
    • Million Man March Poem
    • Phenomenal Woman
    • Weekend Glory
    • Touched by an Angel
    • When You Come

Wanda Coleman

  • Born Wanda Evans November 13, 1946 in Los Angeles, California
  • Identifies herself as the "L.A. poet"
  • She grew up in L.A., California and has used it has the primary setting for many of her political writings
    • focused on the lives of the working middle-class that struggled to survive
    • the primary voice of her novels is an "African American Woman whose head is bloodied and but unbowed, who is just as tough as as the harsh city in which she lives"
  • She published many poems by the time she was 15
  • She had a wide variety of jobs on her way to becoming a professional writer, the careers listed below are not limited to her careers
    • Peace Corps/Vista
    • production editor
    • waitress
    • magazine editor
    • assistant recruiter
    • staff writer for Days of Our Lives and NBC television
  • Her parents encouraged her writing during childhood and she was also influenced by many other well-known authors:
    • Edgar Allan Poe
    • Ezra Pound
    • Charles Olson
  • She has published 8 books since the 1970's:
    • Art in the Court of the Blue Fag (1977)
    • Mad Dog Black Lady (1979)
    • Images (1983)
    • A War of Other Eyes and Other Stories (1988)
    • Dicks-boro Hotel and Other Stories (1989)
    • African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems (1990)
    • Heavy Daughter: Poems and Stories (1991)
    • Hard Dance (1993)
  • She has received a lot of recognition and success for her work
    • 1976: An Emmy for best daytime drama, Days of Our Lives
    • 1981-1982: A National Endowment for the Arts grant
    • 1984: Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry
    • 1998: won the Lenore
  • Her controversial critique of Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
    • She said that it "seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven, but it's not a song."
    • She also accused Maya of writing a book full of "empty phrases and sweeping generalities...dead metaphors ("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy smiles ("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting times")"
  • Interview with Wanda Coleman about her political and literary life:
    • JJ: How did your childhood affect your writings?
WC: First, being raised in the “deep west” of the 1950s, and in an environment where the nasties of racism were considerably less obvious, caused me to believe—early on—that I was equal to and as privileged as any of my Caucasian classmates. I did not know about Black music. (I talk about this in an essay on music in The Riot Inside Me.) I was also raised free of the subsumed self-hated (and idiomatic speech) that I would later discover is a part of the psyche of many of my African-American peers. I lived in a White world. And when I began to discover what it meant to be Black, it was as though I were thrown into a dungeon, emotionally and psychologically. (However, Black music was a promise of liberation.) As I matured, I learned to reverse many of those negatives by putting them to work in my poetry and prose—the stories and the idiomatic speech.
JJ: Could you describe what it was like to be African-American writer? A female writer?
WC: I prefer not to divorce to the two. As an African-American woman writer, it has been a non-stop war, 360 degrees, trying to get the attention I think my work deserves. About 12 years ago, as I was on my way to an event, a man I did not recognize entered my path and stopped me. He was a Jew, apparently someone very powerful in California literary politics. I did not recognize him and if he told me his name, I’ve forgotten it. “Wanda,” he said. “I owe you an apology.” “An apology?” I was flabbergasted, but anxious because I was also late. “Yes. You know, I’ve done you a lot of damage over the years.” He did not itemize the damage. “You have?” “Yes. And I realize now that I was wrong. And I wanted to apologize to you.” “Oh—oh, well—thank you!” We shook hands and off he went. If I’ve ever seen that man again, I don’t know about it. But as the years have passed, he has come to symbolize the way I’ve been treated throughout my writing life. I am living for the day when the American literary world offers me its apology for not giving me the recognition I’ve earned.
  • JJ: What inspired you to become a writer and the works you’ve done?
WC: My mother read to her four children nightly before we started school. Once I began reading on my own, I discovered that what I was given to read in school was less interesting than what was available in the public library. That—wedded to the fact that I began to discover that what was going on in the world outside, particularly my world, was absent from all know literature found on public library shelves! Therefore, I resolved that I would write that world—as I was discovering it—into books. Too—these were the days when Black literature was considered contraband if brought onto the school grounds. The only time I encountered writings by African Americans was through my parents and their educated friends, and when a clever student was able to sneak one book or the other into school under their clothing.
  • JJ: What (if any) political events started/were incorporated into your work?
WC: I wanted to write for “the movement”, but that never happened. Too, I had not yet become a very good writer. Since that time, and finally having achieved my writing goals, I have often deliberately personalized the overtly political—such as in the slaying of 14-year-old Latasha Harlins by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du (acquitted in the incident), and the Kent State shootout. The form does not matter. I am apt to do it in prose as easily as in poetry. Readers of my work tend to put their own spin on it, given their issues—which is the way I think it should be, ultimately. In the end, my work, if it survives my time, must do so without me in the present.
  1. JJ: How did the laws relating to African American’s shape your work?
WC: Well, the laws against miscegenation certainly had an impact on my life—and therefore my work. I lost my first love, who was White (Riot) because he could not see how we could possibly withstand the emotional and social price of a mixed marriage. Miscegenation was outlawed way before I left high school, but its effects were still greatly in play—as they are now. I am now married to “a Jewish fellow”, and am certain that this displeases many on all sides of the color line; however, we’ve survived as a couple for 27 years so far. Some of my newer work is culled from racial incidents related to our marriage. My first husband was a civil rights worker (Riot), my second husband was a fair-skinned Black man aka “funny colored.” The difficulties shared with these two men often appear in my poems and short stories.
  • JJ: In politics who do you admire and why?
WC: There aren’t many politicians outside the Obamas (for all the known reasons) who I admire. Respect would be a better word. Outside of the popular media, and the local whose who (Maxine Waters, Mark Ridley Thomas), I don’t follow party politics particularly well. It is a vast field and deserves time I would prefer to devote to my writing.
  • JJ: What do you consider to be the most important law for African-American to be and why?
WC: Other than the Bill of Rights? The most important law for African-Americans has not yet been written or passed through Congress.
  • JJ: How do you think our laws are shaped by race?
WC: This is a complex subject too great to answer; but, in general, because racism permeates everything in our society, the shaping of biased laws is virtually automatic when the author of a bill or law is insensitive to or hates African-Americans. Exclusion (hate) is built into the language of the law itself, and gives like-minded officials the opportunity to enforce the law in a biased (hateful) manner—as with redlining in real estate and insurance. Too, most law schools discourage African-American students and faculty. You can still count noted Black attorneys, including Michelle Obama, on two hands (Johnny Cochran is dead). I usually think of your question in terms of my parents’ generation (many thousands deprived of their dreams) and mine (deprived of equal education and opportunities). For example: The first law signed by President Barack Obama was named for Lilly Ledbetter, a white 70-year-old Alabama grandmother. That new law reversed a 2007 Supreme Court decision that set strict time limits on pay discrimination suits. Media coverage of the event reminded everyone that Ledbetter could not, herself, profit from this change in the law but that other women with other lawsuits would. I have noticed this same phenomenon when it comes to laws designed to address the inequities of racism (and over the decades since the establishing of the EEOC in 1964, the year I graduated high school). They are usually passed SO THAT THEY ARE NOT RETROACTIVE. Therefore, the damage done in the past stands! I think this is viciously unjust. I think the Lilly Ledbetters should profit, and mightily! Moral victories are all well and good, but—as with innocent men who have been unjustly convicted, and who have spent unjust years in prison—the moral should be backed up with cold hard duckets. Last year, virtually unnoticed, Congress APOLOGIZED FOR SLAVERY! Under the Bush Administration! But, unlike the millions provided for the Japanese interned unfairly in WWII, there were no reparations offered for African-Americans who have suffered the residual damages of slavery! In a society where the corporate White Boys of High Finance are ripping off godzillion dollars, white society has told the majority of African-Americans that our lives, and the lives of our ancestors, ain’t worth one goddamned cent! And don’t forget, the racists are so calloused they do not hesitate to use our exceptions against us (the old adage goes: it takes a niggah to get a niggah). They do not hesitate to point to our exceptional individuals, using them as examples when making the argument against those of us who have not “overcome” negative circumstances.

Primary Texts
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
  • Represents her confinement resulting from racism and oppression
  • About the first 17 years of her life
A Riot Inside Me (Wanda Coleman)
  • About the "bloody crossroads between art and politics"

Critical Responses -
Racial protest, identity, words, and form in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
In this article, Maya Angelou's work is being reviewed and analyzed for its literary content and impression that leaves on the African American community with respects to the struggles of those with African Descent. While writing about personal experiences, she metaphorically eludes to literary unity and the political representations of her personal identity as well as African American identity being portrayed.

Racism in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings/Racism in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:
The article reviews Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in an exploration of the theme racism. While using biographical information about the authers, detailed indexes, and black-and-white illustrations, both literary works are followed by brief discussions on racism from a variety of viewpoints in relation to the authors and the characters portrayed in the books.

The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors (Book):
In this book review, Wanda Coleman writes about American race and class divisions that coincide with it. She takes in account her childhood in Watts during the 1950s and 1960s, her struggles in raising her children, and her activism in the civil rights and black power movements.

Sweet Mama Wanda Tells Fortunes: An Interview with Wanda Coleman:
This article is an interview that discusses the published works of Wanda Coleman that are considered urban portraits of black struggle, feminist rage, and the quest of black women to find dignity in spite of deprivation. It addresses her aggressive style and technique of writing, which holds a mirror image to our nation and what issues have been ignored, or failed to address--deliberately or unwillingly.

A RETROSPECTIVE ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: Political and Intellectual Landmarks:
This article gives a brief analytical overview of the political and intellectual contributions made by the modern civil rights movement as well as those who participated in the movement. It specifically dwells on the actual Civil Rights movement and the imperative role in played in forming a economic, social, and political shift and how that led scholars to reevaluate the social movement.

Critical Articles

Racial protest, identity, words, and form in Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged Bird Sings.

Since emancipation, African Americans have produced “high art” as a strategy to fight their second-class status in racial hierarchies. African American poetry is an important way this was achieved. Literature was an important political tool of struggle within African Americans of the United States. In “Caged Bird” there is a display of literary unity and a significant demonstration on how to fight racism. To ignore the structure and form of how the book was written and solely focus on the content would lead to an ignorance of a huge part of a political work.

Formal strategies and structure in the book reveal a sequence of lessons about resisting oppression and shows how Maya goes from a helpless rage and indignation to subtle resistance, and finally to direct and active protest. Juxtaposition, organization, and arrangement of the book play a big role on how the readers are impacted with the information. The book begins where it ends. Cleanliness and raking the yard are around the scene with the white trash girls...leaves us with a hint of connection between the confrontation with the girls and the cleaning of the yard.

Sweet mama Wanda tells fortunes: An interview with Wanda...

Wanda Coleman’s poetry and prose are like a direct reflection of our nation. They show what we have ignored, failed to deal with, and deliberately excluded. She is sometimes bitter, sometimes sexually explicit, but always reminds us of how such a powerful and wealthy country has abandoned the most important principles regarding whole generations of its “children.” For over two decades, Coleman has published work which is angry and politically charged. Her literature is about black struggle, feminist rage, and a determination in black women to find dignity and respect despite their deprivation. She writes about the humanity of prostitutes, welfare mothers, handicapped, homeless... (social outcasts). She forces the reader to realize everyone has a part in what is going on in the society.

Two Writers Who Changed the World.

Maya Angelou has helped bring about social justice through her writing. Angelou writes of the places she grew up in and the lessons she learned. She wrote about the prejudice and intimidation she faced growing up. She used a powerful voice to change the world. In her “I know why the Caged Bird Sings” she focuses inward; into personal relationships and conflicts, including childhood trauma.

"each of us has the incredible ability... to be a rainbow in somebody's cloud. It's amazing."

She gave her readers a clear picture of racism, discrimination, and injustice.

Popular Culture


A Brief History Of: The NAACP
TIME Magazine, 2009

A little more than 100 years ago, in the midst of a two-day riot, 5,000 spectators gathered in Springfield, Ill., to witness the lynching of two African-American men. Incited partly by a false rape accusation, mobs torched black-owned businesses and buildings, forcing 2,000 African Americans to permanently flee the city. That such hatred would exhibit itself in Abraham Lincoln's hometown just six months before his 100th birthday made the news even more appalling.
Less than a thousand miles away, an interracial group of some 60 activists met in New York City to discuss how best to defend Lincoln's dying legacy. They called themselves the National Negro Committee, later changing their name to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since then, the NAACP has worked tirelessly to transform American race relations. In 1915 it protested the blockbuster silent film Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was enthusiastically screened at the White House by Woodrow Wilson. In 1930 its members blocked the Supreme Court nomination of a segregationist judge, and nearly 25 years later the group persuaded the court to declare public-school segregation unconstitutional.
But with the rise of more confrontational styles of protest in the 1960s came doubts about the NAACP's comparatively passive legislative and judicial tactics. Membership declined through the 1990s, when executive turmoil and near bankruptcy led some to question whether the organization would even reach its 100th anniversary. It will, on Feb. 12, just weeks after the swearing-in of the nation's first African-American President, who began his political career in Springfield. Could there be a better birthday present?

Rubin Carter: Counted Out Again
TIME Magazine, 1977

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
—From Bob Dylan's song Hurricane
That was for a jury to decide, and a year ago a phalanx of literary and show biz personalities joined Dylan in seeking a new trial for Rubin ("Hurricane") Carter, a former middleweight boxer convicted of murder who, with his friend John Artis, had been in prison for nine years. The two finally got their second chance after the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out their convictions because the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence affecting the reliability of its two prime witnesses (TIME, March 29). Last week the second trial ended, and Carter, 39, and Artis, 30, sat stoically with their hands folded as the forewoman of the jury rose to read the verdict: "Guilty."
White Dodge. For 31 days the jurors had heard from 76 witnesses the story of the killings and subsequent events. On June 17, 1966, two black men armed with shotgun and pistol shot up a white working-class bar in Paterson, N.J., killing the bartender and two of three customers. A witness identified a white Dodge as looking like the getaway car, and a search of it turned up a bullet and shotgun shell. Carter and Artis were in the car, but it was not until four months later that they were charged with the murders. That was when two petty thieves—Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley—claimed that while trying to break into a nearby factory, they had seen Carter and Artis flee the bar. The burglars' testimony was central to the state's case and helped send Carter and Artis to prison for life.
Then in 1974 Fred Hogan, an investigator for the New Jersey public defender's office, and New York Times Reporter Selwyn Raab got Bello and Bradley to say that they had lied in their identification because the police, as Bello put it, had "promised they'd take care of me if I got jammed up again." Last March a hearing was held, and the prosecution introduced for the first time a taped interrogation of Bello that revealed the police had indeed promised to help the two in various criminal cases against them. The defense, which had been assured during the cross-examination of witnesses in the first trial that there had been no such deals, now argued that the new information was grounds for another trial. The state supreme court agreed and reversed the convictions.
But at the second trial the new Passaic County prosecutor, Burrell Ives Humphreys, and his "Carter task force" had a few surprises in store for the defense. A major stunner: Alfred Bello took the stand and calmly recanted his recantation. Calling it a lie, Bello pointed to Carter and Artis as the two men he had seen leaving the bar. Hogan and Raab, he said, had offered him bribes to recant. Moreover, two former defense witnesses backed up the prosecution's contention that either Carter or his former lawyer tried to cook up a phony alibi; they testified this time that they were not with Carter at the time of the shoot-up.
Racial Horror. Trying to poke holes in the state's case, defense attorneys argued that the police were so anxious to get a conviction that they played fast and loose with the facts linking Carter and Artis to the killings. The lawyers went so far as to present evidence suggesting that the cops could have planted the bullet and shotgun shell in the Dodge. The witnesses who undercut Carter's alibi, they charged, had been linked to the police. But the defense was badly wounded by one prosecution coup: the judge allowed the state to argue that Carter and Artis had killed the three whites in order to avenge the murder six hours earlier of a black tavern owner whose stepson was a friend of Carter's.
In his summation. Carter's lawyer, Myron Beldock, countered that such a tactic was a "racial horror that feeds on the basest, most dirty part of all of us." He asked the jury to reject the prosecution's theory of Carter as a "mad, racist killer" bent on revenge. Instead, the jury rejected Beldock's case, and Hurricane Carter and John Artis were led back to jail to await sentencing and the start of a new round of appeals.


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