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Maya Angelou

Old Folks Laugh

More challenging questions!

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 turn slowly, slyly knowing
the best and the worst
of remembering."
  • Why would the old folks "turn slowly"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is "the best and the worst of remembering"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet speak about "slyly knowing"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Saliva glistens in
the corners of their mouths,
their heads wobble
on brittle necks, but
their laps
are filled with memories."
  • Contrast the factual nature of the first four lines above with the philosophical nature of the final two. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why is their wisdom said to be in "their laps"? (4)

[Need help?]

"When old folks laugh, they consider the promise
of dear painless death, and generously
forgive life for happening
to them."
  • What would be the meaning of "dear" in these lines? (4)

[Need help?]

  • When the poet says that the old folks "generously forgive life for happening to them", is she looking at life positively or negatively? (4)

[Need help?]

Comment on the use of colloquialism in this poem. (4)

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