Author, poet, singer, actress, civil rights campaigner Maya Angelou left us in May 2014 at the age of 86. At the time I was re-reading her sequence of autobiographies beginning with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, her most famous first volume of her life story. I carried on reading to the sixth volume “A Song Flung Up To Heaven” and ended up with a strong sense as to why this formidable woman is rightly acclaimed one of America’s greatest writers of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read her 2013 publication which is an overview of her relationship with her mother “Mom & Me & Mom”. Here is my book by book guide to Maya’s work.
When I first read these autobiographies I was probably in my late teens and this was the one which made the most impact, probably because it is the tale of Angelou’s youth, taking her up to the age of sixteen and the birth of her son. Perhaps its a book to read when you not much older than that for it to have the greatest effect, as on re-read I
found Angelou’s prose a little flowery on occasions. For me this book comes most alive in Stamps, Arkansas, in and around her grandmother’s general store and Angelou’s relationship with her and her brother Bailey. A move to St Louis brings about a chilling incident with her mother’s boyfriend. It all makes for high quality reading.
The subsequent volumes of Angelou’s life-story do not have the same kudos attached to them, in the UK anyway, as her first, so I did not approach re-reading this with the same level of expectation. I found myself enjoying it even more than the first book and for me it is the strongest in the set. I probably read this one first when I was around the same age as Angelou herself in the narrative. Maybe it needed a bit more distance and experience, which I know contradicts what I felt about “Caged Bird”. Angelou is in her late teens, has her baby son and is back living with her mother. It’s largely a search for a career and her place in the world (not sure why it has the religious-implying title). She goes from Creole cook (with no experience of Creole food) to her most questionable action when her encounter with a couple of predatory lesbians sees her wanting payback by getting them to turn tricks as she becomes an “absent madam” in a brothel. She wants to join the army but is challenged by McCarthyism, becomes part of a dancing double act and is duped into becoming a prostitute herself. All within a couple of hundred pages! It is well paced and very involving.
In this third volume music plays a central role as Maya begins working in a record shop where she meets and then marries a white Greek man. Following the breakdown of this marriage she becomes a dancer at a strip club, then a cabaret singer with her own show and a growing reputation and then part of a world tour of “Porgy And Bess”. The most striking thing in certainly the last two books has been her willingness to give things a go and usually doing them to a convincing standard. (I’m not including relationships here which to this point haven’t been wholly successful). Once again, I was with her all the way- willing her marriage to work. The world tour gives us a chance to see her as a fish out of water in different countries where the Afro-American cast is being feted in a way which could not have happened in America at that time. There’s an examination of the effects her prolonged absence has on her son and a happy reunion at the end .
Quite a lot happens in this book but central is her marriage to black African Vus and the reader is required to put down their “I know this isn’t going to work….” feelings to let the story unfold. Angelou’s marriage comes at a time when there was great Black American enthusiasm for Black Africa. With such unrest in the USA it seemed to some that Africa had got it sorted out, an assumption that might have been a little premature. The book begins marvellously with Billie Holiday becoming a regular visitor at the Angelou home, fascinated by the “squareness” of Maya and her family orientated life. Two polar opposites and it doesn’t end well. Maya continues with singing but interest in the Civil Rights movement leads her to a post in Martin Luther King’s fundraising team. There’s a shaky relationship with an unsuitable bail bondsman before she is swept off her feet by the visiting Vus. The gulf between the Black American Woman and Black African Man becomes apparent in this section. Maya moves to Cairo and when that gulf becomes too wide and the marriage crumbles she relocates to Ghana. Once again, son Guy is Maya’s constant and he encounters a brush with death. We have music, theatre, relationships and a lot of politics. It’s not quite as captivating as the first three volumes but it is still high standard autobiographical writing .
Picks up where “Heart of A Woman” left off. Maya begins to forge a life in Ghana and gets a job at the university where Guy is studying. This is a story of ex-pats and not belonging as Maya faces the quandary of looking like the Africans but still not being fully accepted by them. Unlike America, it is not the colour of her skin which can cause the problems. She forges relationships mainly with a group of Black Americans who have found their way to Ghana in the hope for acceptance and a better life. Malcolm X brings the situation in America back into their lives when he comes for a visit and Maya resumes her acting career with a tour in Berlin and Italy. The Berlin sequences features a memorably excruciating breakfast party where Maya is invited by a German family and brings along an Israeli man. Here the writing really comes to life. Things take an almost mystical turn towards the end when Maya begins to sense déjà vu on a trip to a village where she is recognised even though she hadn’t been there before. This flummoxes the usually rational Angelou and her sense of displacement is brought to a head. The fragmentary nature of Maya’s sojourn in Africa affects the writing and I did not find this volume as involving as the other four. I found it enjoyable rather than essential reading.
A sixteen year gap in the publication dates although this does pick up where “All God’s Children” left off. Maya returns to work with an organisation for Malcolm X, but before she can start he is murdered. Her story is slighter here it is the events of an America in crisis which dominate. Maya has to come to terms with Malcolm X’s assassination, is on the site of the Watts Riots and in a weird history-repeating itself kind of way, just as she is about to re-start work with Martin Luther King he too is gunned down. It is in this volume that she begins work on the poetry she is associated with and the story is brought up to the point where she begins work on “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” For me this book is the least impressive of the sequence. It feels a little empty and is slightly repetitive and meandering. I know its driven by circumstances but I don’t like to see Maya at her most goal-less. I prefer the more driven-have-a-go at anything Maya of “Gather Together”. She has inevitably lost the recklessness of youth. Here we see her friendships with other notable Afro-Americans; the writers James Baldwin and Rosa Guy together with the actress Nichelle Nichols (Uhura in “Star Trek”), but her depictions of these relationships does not go deep enough for me and this thin quick-to-read volume has a tendency to skim a little superficially along the surface of the Black American life of the 1960’s. Having read six volumes, however, Maya and her family seem like old friends so I enjoyed catching up with them in this instalment.