The definition of protest literature is fluid and varies according to perspective. For example, social critics could insist that protest literature must include a specific political purpose. A feminist critic may look to protest literature to promote (or avoid promoting) a gender bias. The deconstructionist who is concerned only with language and definition and not at all with the author’s intention may well argue that all literature is a form of protest. Whittled to the bare bones, any definition of protest literature must at least include the idea that the author is speaking against something. If we assume that ‘‘Woman Work’’ is written in the voice of a female slave, Angelou has written a poem in defiance of oppression. By essentially dividing the poem in half—the first half listing the speaker’s chores, the second half reconnecting with nature—Angelou defends a woman’s refusal to be only what she is socially allowed to be.
Lines 1–14 of ‘‘Woman Work’’ create a checklist of chores the speaker of the poem must do on a daily basis. She tends to children and the sick, shops for food and prepares it, cleans the house, mends and irons clothing, harvests crops and weeds gardens. The work is mundane and demanding; it is physically draining and mentally unrewarding. It is the life that has been prescribed for the woman because she is a slave.
The tone of that stanza is depressing. There is no enthusiasm or interest in the voice of the speaker. She speaks in clipped phrases, using blunt words that reveal her world-weary attitude.
Compare that tone with that of the other half of the poem, in which the speaker reunites with nature and the elements that bring her peace and respite. These stanzas are created using imagery— icy kisses, curving sky—and words that roll off the tongue. Gone is the harshness of the first 14 lines; it has been replaced not with another list, but with a conversation—albeit one-sided—between the woman and nature.
Sociologists and cultural theorists alike have long purported that women are more earth centered than men. This is not to say that men do not appreciate and respect nature. But women, it is generally agreed upon, have a more reciprocal relationship with the earth. The work women have traditionally done—giving and nurturing life—is directly connected with nature and her cycles. This connection is more than just physical in nature; it is spiritual as well.
In the era of American slavery, African Americans were considered the property of their owners. They had no rights, no voice, no say. The first stanza of ‘‘Woman Work’’ reflects these imposed restrictions. The woman’s life is filled with one chore, one responsibility, after another. Every waking moment is spent fulfilling the needs and wants of someone else; her own needs and desires go unattended. Her life is not her own.
These limitations would have been devastating for anyone, man or woman. But they arguably caused a greater sense of loss for women. In her book Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, Elizabeth Johnson explores the idea that because of the way women have lived historically, they ‘‘tend to experience themselves as a self in fundamental embodied connection with others.’’ Imagine, then, how crippling it must have been for African American women to lose their families and friends and be forced into bondage for people who cared not one bit for their wellbeing. Without that connection, this already marginalized group of women was pushed further to the outer banks of humanity.
Yet Angelou’s poem suggests that no matter how merciless the master, no matter how backbreaking and tedious the labor, slave women refused to be oppressed to the point of nothingness. In ‘‘Woman Work,’’ the speaker turns to the only option left: nature. In her workaday world, the woman has no power. But with nature, she still has the ability to make requests, to ask that her needs be fulfilled. She speaks to nature almost as if to a lover when she uses phrases such as ‘‘fall softly,’’ ‘‘cover me,’’ and ‘‘let me rest.’’ Line 30 of the poem is especially pointed in its depiction of the woman’s relationship with nature. She owns it, claiming its comfort for herself.
By depicting the woman’s daily hardship in the first 14 lines of the poem and her communion with nature in the last 16 lines, Angelou has created a piece of protest literature. She tells the reader that life is one tedious chore after another for this slave. She is not appreciated or valued, but merely expected to perform duty upon duty. She is exploited to such an extent that she is left feeling empty, alone, without.
And yet this woman refuses to accept the life inflicted upon her as the only life she has. She turns and returns to nature and all her glorious gifts in search of comfort and solace. She makes requests and is honored with replies in the form of fiercely blowing winds, gently falling snowflakes, and endlessly curving skies. Despite the fact that the slave woman is ostracized, criticized, degraded, and nearly dehumanized, she retaliates—protests—by refusing to let those in power force her to a life of nothingness.
Rather than dominate nature as others dominate her, the woman seeks and builds connections with the natural world around her. She considers nature a friend. She will not become what she is believed to be. Through resistance and a resolute spirit, the woman retains her sense of dignity and worth. In her heart, she has not forgotten who she is.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Maya Angelou, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on ‘‘Woman Work,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.