My crime is "heroes, dead and gone"
dead Vesey, Turner, Gabriel,
dead Malcolm, Marcus, Martin King.
They fought too hard, they loved too well.
My crime is I'm alive to tell.
My sin is "hanging from a tree"
I do not scream, it makes me proud.
I take to dying like a man.
I do it to impress the crowd.
My sin lies in not screaming loud.
In all her work, Maya Angelou uses rhythm, imagery, drama, and narrative to represent the capacity of African Americans, and humans in general, to survive injustice, hardship and defeat, and to overcome difficult situations (Rowe 31). "My Guilt" is a fair example of this. Angelou uses slavery and civil rights heroes of the past to express her feelings of restraint. In "My Guilt" Maya Angelou uses imagery and simplicity to express themes of strength and guilt.
"My Guilt" is a direct and straightforward poem. The first stanza is an allusion to slavery, telling about families split up and held captive. The narrator expresses her guilt as slavery enduring too long. In the second stanza, the narrator portrays Nat Turner and Malcolm X, among others, as symbols of strength and resistance. She declares that her "crime is I'm alive to tell." The third and last stanza compares the general fight against injustice to a lynching. The narrator does not protest out of pride, but feels guilty for not asserting herself.
Images of racism help the reader visualize the themes. "Slavery's chains" and "the clang of iron" express the bondage Angelou feels. References to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., both friends of Angelou, represent the repression felt by African Americans and their endurance through misfortune. This theme is strenghtened with dramatic lines such as "They fought so hard, they loved too well/My crime is I'm alive to tell." Angelou's poetry is known for its imagery and realism (Braxton 5).
"My Guilt" is written as a lyrical poem in first person point of view, but also uses narrative lines. It is not watered down with metaphors and deep meanings that require much imagination, and the images speak for themselves. The diction is simple; almost every word is one syllable. Angelou uses a basic rhyme scheme, rhyming the second line of each staza with the last two. There are few metaphors, but easily understood.
The simplicity and realism of Maya Angelou's poetry makes it easy to understand and enjoy. Many critics say that Angelou's poetry can only be truly appreciated when it is read aloud by the poet herself (Braxton 6). Although it may add to the personality of the lyric, it is not necessary for the educated and imaginative reader.