Critical Essays A Note on Southern Fundamentalism


The guiding tenets and rituals of fundamentalism — a twentieth-century religious movement which interprets scripture literally and applies it to daily life — influence Angelou's themes, language, symbols, allusions, and characterizations. A balm to despair and alienation since slave times, soulful worship, plaintive spirituals, and trust in a life in the hereafter bolstered blacks who were cut off from African faiths by distance, time, and language. Buoyed by post-World War I revivals, which countered growing liberalism, the church found itself perpetually on the defensive and launched sensationalist journals, such as J. Frank Norris' The Fundamentalist, against illicit sex, pornography, saloons, divorce, and other embodiments of Satan. A key event in the history of Southern fundamentalism occurred in 1925, when high school biology teacher John T. Scopes, defended by the articulate Clarence Darrow, lost a battle against religious conservatives of Dayton, Tennessee, who, goaded to near-frenzy by populist William Jennings Bryan, sought to supplant Darwin's theory of evolution with biblical creationism in school curricula. Armed with Bibles and muttering amens, the faithful mobbed the courthouse and demanded that their simple interpretation of earth's beginnings was superior to scientific theory.

As a product of the fundamentalist South, Maya, steeped in the uplifting rhythms of spirituals and schooled in scripture, learns early that wisdom is to be found in the Bible, strictly interpreted by Momma and Uncle Willie and dispatched through rigorous homilies, some of which (for example, "Waste not, want not") actually derive from sayings by Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard. In addition to personal prayers, mealtime blessings, and family worship, emotional funerals and flamboyant revivals color the day-to-day milieu of home, work, and school with added reminders of life's grimness and the rewards awaiting the faithful in heaven. Maya internalizes religious strictures, wisely avoiding concepts that strain her young mind and disobeying when natural tendencies override her fear of Momma and her switch. Yet, with all her fundamentalist upbringing, she takes no comfort from the church during her most fearful challenge, the slow recovery from rape.