18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

Mother, A Cradle to Hold Me

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


“Mother, A Cradle to Hold Me” is a lyric poem by American poet, novelist, and activist Maya Angelou. It was published as the sole piece in her 2006 New York Times Best Seller book of the same title. The poem was released as a tribute to Angelou’s own mother. It was published seven years before the memoir Angelou wrote about her mother entitled Mom & Me & Mom (2013). The poem strays from Angelou’s other collections of work in that it is written to feel like a special gift or card that readers can share with maternal figures in their lives for Mother’s Day. At the same time, the poem elucidates the struggles and triumphs of a child’s relationship with their mother, producing the same positive sentiments as some of her most well-known poems, including “Phenomenal Woman” (1995) and “Still I Rise” (1978).

Poet Biography

Marguerite Annie Johnson was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her name “Maya," or “my,” came from her older brother Bailey. When she was 3, her parents, Vivian and Bailey, divorced, and she and her brother moved to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandparents, who did well economically during this time, despite the Great Depression. Several years later, the children moved back to St. Louis to again live with their mother. At this time, Angelou’s mother’s boyfriend raped her and subsequently was jailed and murdered. Angelou became mute for five years afterward because she thought her confession of the rape to her brother was what led to the man’s demise. Angelou and her brother eventually moved back to their grandparents’ home in Arkansas, where a tutor encouraged her to speak and read the works of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, and others. As teenagers, Angelou and her brother returned to live with their mother again, this time in Oakland, California. Angelou became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. After completing high school, she had her first and only child Clyde, later changed to Guy. Her late teenage years as a single Black mother consisted of many challenges, including failed relationships and a plethora of jobs, such as prostitution.

In her early 20s, Angelou married Tosh Angelos, a Greek electrician, despite the disapproval of her mother at the interracial union; the marriage lasted only a few years. During this time, she took classes and danced with Alvin Ailey, forming a group called “Al and Rita.” Even though this act did not find success, she continued to dance and sing calypso music at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, where her managers encouraged her to take the name Maya Angelou rather than Rita or Marguerite Johnson. Her talent and new name led to a European tour of the opera Porgy and Bess. During these travels, she realized she was proficient at learning new languages and also decided to record her first album Miss Calypso (1957).

In the late 1950s, Angelou moved to New York to start her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she was first published. In 1960, her meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. prompted her to organize a Cabaret for Freedom for King’s civil rights organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Alongside civil rights, Angelou’s other causes included anti-apartheid activism.

In the early 1960s, Angelou left the United States to first live in Cairo, Egypt where she edited The Arab Observer, and then Ghana, where Guy wanted to attend college, and where she worked in theatre, newspaper, and radio. In Cairo, she became acquainted with Malcolm X. When she returned to the U.S. in 1965, she helped him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

In the late 1960s, a series of events propelled Angelou into international recognition despite the loss of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. With no experience, she produced and wrote a series of documentaries about Black heritage and blues music called Black, Blues, Black! for National Educational Television, the precursor to PBS. She then wrote her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which was nominated for a National Book Award and remains highly acclaimed.

The 1970s led to a second marriage with Welsh artist Paul du Freu and brought her into contact with a variety of opportunities, including writing and composing for singer Roberta Flack, acting in the mini-series Roots (1977), and writing articles, TV scripts, short stories, poetry, and more while also acting on Broadway. Furthermore, she received several accolades: her role in Look Away (1973) left her with a Tony Award nomination, and her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die (1971) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

In the 1980s, she returned to her Southern roots in order to come to terms with her past. She received the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University, where her courses included ethics, theology, writing, and more. She spent the rest of her life viewing herself as a teacher who writes.

The 1990s started her lecture circuit around the U.S. in a tour bus, which continued until her death, and also saw the realization of her dream to direct a feature film, Down in the Delta (1996). She also famously recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993.

In the 2000s, Angelou experienced the death of her brother and took part in political campaigns, namely Hilary Clinton’s run for the Democratic primary in 2008. She also served as a consultant for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.

On May 28, 2014, Angelou died at age 86, found by her nurse. At the time, she was working on a book about her experiences with world leaders. One year earlier, she published her seventh and last autobiography, a lifelong project to tell her story one volume at a time, titled Mom & Me & Mom (2013) about her relationship with her mother, who died in 1991.

Poem Text

Angelou, Maya. “Mother, A Cradle to Hold Me.” 2009. Poetry Mala.


The poem features a first-person speaker talking to a “you” (Line 2), designated as their mother, following a chronological pattern from the speaker’s birth to adulthood.

In the first stanza, the speaker declares that they were clearly born of their mother: “I was created in you” (Line 2). The speaker also likens their mother’s arms to a cradle to comfort them and her scent as perfumed air that the speaker breathed.

In second stanza, the speaker directly addresses their mother, acknowledging that their early life “was only you” (Line 15), meaning the mother, and did not realize the mother’s life consisted of more than them.

The third stanza shows the closeness between the two starting to wane as the speaker begins to grow up. The speaker is afraid to leave their mother’s lap, but the mother says to her child that she may want to stand one day. Then, the speaker repeats that the mother “left again, but again returned” (Lines 32-33). The pattern of leaving and returning increases the speaker’s confidence.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker compares how well they know their mother vs. how well their mother knows them. The speaker studied their mother intensely when she was present and away, memorizing her every feature and manner of singing.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker describes how the mother posed, looked, and shared affection. The speaker ends the stanza with the result of how that made them feel: “I was blessed with a sense of health” (Line 53).

The speaker gushes even more in the sixth stanza, using the phrase “nougats of glee” (Line 57) to express their mother as a source of joy for them.

In the seventh stanza, the tone becomes a bit darker when the speaker mentions their teenage years, when they thought they knew more than their mother. As the speaker moves beyond adolescence, they start to recognize that the mother knew more than they had thought.

In the eighth stanza, the speaker realizes their knowledge is not as high as they had thought during their adolescence. Age has humbled the speaker who now thanks their mother for not getting rid of them and continuing to love them even when they were too selfish to give back.

The ninth stanza is the speaker’s final direct address to their mother, simply summarizing all of the above: “I thank you, Mother / I love you” (Lines 83-84).

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