Maya Angelou (1928-2014), an African-American woman poet, writes passionately about the experiences of women of her own community. While often focusing on the story of one particular African-American woman, Angelou makes it clear that the story is not, in fact, the story of an individual, but of many like that woman who live in despair and poverty in suburbs all across the United States. ‘Momma Welfare Roll’ is just such a poem.
‘Momma Welfare Roll’ contains two stanzas. The first stanza consists of eleven lines, and the second stanza consists of eight lines. The same speaker appears in both the stanzas – a little girl watching her mother struggle to make ends meet. Though we are tempted to pity the mother when reading the child’s narration, we see that her mother is defiant, thus deserving not pity but respect. Such strong women recur in Angelou’s poetry.
Visual evocation plays a significant part in the poem. The first stanza begins with an image of the mother with her hands on her hips. She is evidently angry. But beneath the veneer of her anger, what is visible even to the little girl is the weakness of her bones. It is because of this physical debility that the mother cannot work to earn a living for herself and her children, and hence, she has to live on welfare, as the title of the poem specifies.
Many crimes have been committed against the mother, all of which have apparently led to her poverty, but such crimes seem commonplace to her now by dint of having been committed again and again. Still she cannot stop accusing those who have made her life miserable. And to show her stance of accusation, Angelou again uses a visual representation that makes things very clear – the image of her jowls quivering.
The mother adopts an accusatory tone not for herself (for she is clearly used to living a hard life), but for her children. Her anger stems from the fact that her children do not enjoy the same privileges as the children of more financially-secure families. They are deprived of the toys that other parents can afford for their respective children. Instead, they play in darkened doorways, and the rooftop of houses in the seedy neighbourhood in which they live. Sometimes they even trespass on other people’s property, for they have nowhere else to go.
The second stanza becomes even more desperate in its tone than the first one. The little girl is aware that many women of her community are forced to work as prostitutes, but her mother can’t even do that because she is too fat to be considered attractive. The conventional American beauty narrative does not consider black women to be beautiful, and the child is deeply aware of that. Another justification for the mother’s unemployment is given when the narrator says that she is “too mad to work.” ‘Mad’ here has a double meaning; it denotes both anger, and mental instability.
Not being able to work, the mother often dozes off and dreams that her luck has changed. However, when she wakes up, she once again ahs to confront the harsh reality of her life – that she is “bare-handed”, that she has nothing at all to offer her children. She has to take recourse to the welfare given by the United States government. However, she does not see this welfare as charity. She looks upon it as her right. And so she does not think it is given to her for free, but rather taken by force on her part. In this display of force is the mother’s show of defiance that leads readers to respect her.
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