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Maya Angelou

Old Folks Laugh

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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Maya Angelou takes a simple but poetic view of the process of aging. One of the important things about growing old, she says, is that the elderly are no longer forced to hold their tongues but may say exactly what comes to mind. They are also free to laugh as they please.

There are naturally the handicaps like dribbling and the brittleness of their bones but they have wonderful memories of a whole life to draw upon.


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 arena 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:

"They have spent their
content of simpering,
holding their lips this
and that way, winding
the lines between
their brows."
  • What does the poet mean when she uses the word "simpering"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What then does the poet mean when she speaks of "their content of simpering"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is meant by "holding their lips this and that way"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • How can a person "wind the lines between their brows"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • How would you sum up the message in these six lines? (4)

[Need help?]

"Old folks
allow their bellies to jiggle like slow
  • Comment this rather quaint expression. (4)

[Need help?]

"The hollers
rise up and spill
over any way they want.
When old folks laugh, they free the world."
  • What is meant by "hollers"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why should their "hollers" spill over "any way they want"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when she says, "When old folks laugh, they free the world"? (2)

[Need help?]

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