1. Analyze the essay in relation to its portrayal of the workplace
Generally speaking, Angelou’s account describes cotton-picking as a seasonal job, which does not pay enough to earn a man’s lunch, nor to provide for a family. However, the author’s portrayal of this workplace goes beyond the basic facts to discuss the spirit of the workers and the atmosphere before the men leave to the field and after they come back.
Neither the workers, nor the narrator’s grandmother who sells them groceries for lunch, are unaware how the day will end. They all know that the work will not even allow them to pay the grandmother back. Nonetheless, all parties start the day with great optimism: after walking miles to the store, the men are “laughing, joking, boasting and bragging,” whereas the grandmother praises God for not letting her seeing the new day.
It seems that sound optimism, professional pride and cheer are the only thing those people have when they start the day, as they know “that they are going to end it as they started it” – disappointed, injured and without any reasonable income.
2. Examine the social significance of interactions in the workplace as illustrated through essay.
The oppressed workers have any reason to lose hope and carry on normal lives. Nevertheless, the support one another by comparing productivity: “the champion picker of the day before” become “the hero of the dawn,” only if for one day. This notion provides not only a means of motivation, but also a sense of unity from in the face of impossible life conditions.
A companion to the everyday struggle is the narrator’s grandmother, who is referred to as “sister.” It seems that she suffer just as them, but plays a role in their lives. She keeps providing them groceries, although they will doubtfully be able to pay her back, allows them to leave their sacks in the store and hosts their morning “cheer-up” gatherings.
3. Assess perspectives of diversity, understanding, moral values, personal integrity, and social justice in the workplace as illustrated.
The gloomy picture of the cotton-picking time is in fact an example of what Angelou rightfully defines as “the harshness of Black Southern life.” Although slavery was officially abolished, those black men who worked in “the remains of slavery’s plantations” did not feel the progress. They perform physical work and hardly being reimbursed, whereas still committed to pay their bills to “the white commissary downtown.”
Angelou emphasizes the dichotomy between the men’s behavior and the social injustice they live in. It is possible to assume that the author criticizes those “gay song-singing cotton pickers,” who should have resisted the white oppression instead of complying with it. Similarly, the grandmother’s prayer to be guided by God “along the straight and narrow contrasts the world around her, which is anything but moral and just.
4. Explain the significance of the essay, relate its thematic emphasis to current trends in the workplace
“Picking Cotton,” as well as many other parts in Angelou’s 1969 first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a portrayal of the daily insults, oppression and cruelty that characterized the author’s path from childhood to adulthood (Saunders, 2009). This is a world with no workplace ethics, where the low-skilled labor lacks any rights, and employers can suppress the poor (in particular the Blacks) with no supervision. Today, although many workers still remain in poverty, such work environments as described in the essay do not represent the mainstream of American workplaces. However, the cotton pickers resemble the state of the workers in sweatshops, both in the US (where they exist illegally) and abroad. Thus, Angelou’s account is not completely anachronistic; it provides a historical comparison to the lower end of the labor market.
5. Explain how the literary elements that define the essay shape readers’ response to themes portrayed in the essay.
The essay’s extensive use of sensory cues helps to develop the readers’ experience of the situation, as perceived by the (presumably juvenile, for the most part) narrator. Angelou makes a clear distinction between what the generally cheerful images of workers on the way to the field, which is “softened by nature’s blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight,” and the true nature of life, as can be seen in the afternoon.
The narrator remarks the “if the morning sounds and smells were touched with the supernatural, the late afternoon had all the features of the normal Arkansas life”:
Visually, we witness the injuries, the heavy movements in the afternoon and the men sawing their sacks “under a coal-oil lamp with fingers stiffening from the day’s work.” The sounds and conversations are very different between the two parts of the day. The same holds true for the scents, which range from “the odors of onions and oranges and kerosene” during the night, against “the early morning air” that enters the store when the grandmother opens the door.
Angelou, M. (1969). Picking Cotton. Retrieved September 7, 2009 from < http://www.grossmont.edu/bertdill/topics/Picking_Cotton.pdf>
Saunders, J. R. (2009). Breaking out of the cage: The autobiographical writings of Maya Angelou. In H. Bloom (Ed.), Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Maya Angelou—New Edition (pp. 3-16). New York: Infobase Publishing.
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