This first stanza of ‘‘Woman Work’’ is the most important in the poem because it is here the reader could infer that the woman speaking is a slave.
Lines 11 and 14 talk about crops that need tending. These are not just any crops, but those grown in the Deep South and traditionally harvested by African American slaves. Cane and cotton were two of the most profitable crops in the Antebellum (pre–Civil War) South, and plantations relied on them for profit. The most economical means of harvesting them was through free—slave—labor.
Once that fact is established, the first stanza takes on new meaning. The chores listed are not necessarily—or even probably—the woman’s own. Whose children is she tending, whose clothes need mending? Is the floor that needs mopping her own? Surely not, since line 12 tells the reader she lives in a hut. Would she be having company? Probably not, but wealthy plantation owners often entertained guests. Most, if not all, of the first stanza refers to activity that is imposed upon the woman for the benefit of others. Nowhere does she talk about herself except in relation to the responsibilities she is expected to fulfill.
Conversely, some readers might interpret this first stanza to be a description in the life of any hardworking woman in a domestic situation. Until the late 1940s and early 1950s, African Americans often found work as sharecroppers in the south; they worked and lived on the land as tenants. In return, a certain percentage of the harvest was given to the landowner. Cane and cotton were prominent crops in the American South and needed someone to tend to them.
Read from this perspective, the woman’s life would be very similar to that of a slave because much of her daily work is done for the benefit of someone else, though to a lesser extent. Her housing would still be shabby, accurately described as a ‘‘hut,’’ perhaps with wooden floors that required mopping.
The remaining four stanzas can be analyzed together because they work as one unit. Whereas the first stanza, which is nearly four times longer than each of the remaining four, concerns itself with what the woman must do on a daily basis for someone else, the remaining sixteen lines are all about what nature can do for her.
Lines 15–18 invoke the sun’s warmth and the rain’s dewy moisture to cool her brow.
Lines 19–22 beseech the storm and its wind to blow her across the sky, far from where she is, so that she might find rest.
Lines 23–26 rely on gentle snow to cover and comfort her so that she can rest her weary body and mind.
The final stanza, lines 27–30, acknowledges that the woman owns nothing but nature’s elements, and even that ownership is figurative rather than literal. Every moment of the woman’s life is spent in service to others, and when at last she is done at the end of a long and tiring day, all she has left is the natural world surrounding her: sun, sky, mountain and stone, stars, and moonlight.
These last four stanzas are all about finding comfort and release, stolen moments of peace from the monotonous and never-ending routine of her daily life. Nature is the source of this woman’s strength. The idea that the woman speaking is a slave is reinforced in the final line of the poem.
While lines 11, 14, and 30 support the idea that the speaker is a slave, so does the placement of the poem in the collection And Still I Rise. ‘‘Woman Work’’ is situated between ‘‘To Beat the Child was Bad Enough’’ and ‘‘One More Round.’’ The former is about child abuse; the latter about slavery. Both surrounding poems explore themes of bondage and abuse, and ‘‘One More Round’’ discusses the ‘‘daily grind’’ of slavery, suggesting a routine of toil and exploitation. It would make sense that ‘‘Woman Work’’ examines a similar topic.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Maya Angelou, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.