A Song Flung Up to Heaven
by Maya Angelou
(Random House, 256 pp., $23.95)
When I was in college in the early 1980s, the black folksinger Odetta was invited to campus to perform. Clad in African garb and accompanying herself on the guitar, she weaved together inspirational songs and savory anecdotes garnished with ancient wisdom. She rocked the house, the young and mostly white students delighted to be sitting at the feet of a black Earth goddess “telling it like it is.” I thought I had a good time. But later my white roommate shocked me by dismissing the whole thing. His problem with Odetta was her smugness, her obvious expectation that her audience bow to her moral superiority without question.
This threw me. I had a natural African American impulse to let this worldlywise middle-aged black woman’s maternalism wash over me. And as a post-civil rights African American, I assumed that it was a white audience’s job to follow suit. I had never heard anyone question what was, in fact, a rather manipulative way of approaching an audience. One part of me questioned whether my friend was a “racist”; but I also knew that few white performers could have gotten away with the Odetta tone, and that since white eighteen-year-olds could not have played any part in the oppression that Odetta had encountered in her life, it was a bit of an act to require them to accept her saintliness without question.
I suspect that my friend would feel the same way about Maya Angelou’s series of autobiographies, now concluded with A Song Flung Up to Heaven. Since the success of the first installment, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which appeared in 1969, Angelou has followed up with no less than five memoirs. To dismiss as smug I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—which chronicles an awkward Southern black girl’s path to adulthood from poverty in Arkansas to working-class black San Francisco in the 1940s—would suggest a certain blindness to the poignancy of being young, female, and black in America before the era of civil rights; but I will concede that in her subsequent volumes Angelou strides through her narratives with a studied Odetta-like nobility. Throughout these narratives, Angelou implicitly dares the reader to question her private line to God and Truth.
I must confess also that I am not immune to the Angelou scriptures. Sometimes the hauteur is nothing more dire than a kind of black-mother wit. And Angelou’s life has certainly been a full one: from the hardscrabble Depression-era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. This last book ends with Angelou penning the first line of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at the beginning of her career as a famous writer. I could never hope to taste as much of life as she has; and if my lot were as rich as hers, I would more likely wind up in therapy than flattering Bill Clinton with a poem at his inauguration.
The woman who stood at that wintry podium in Washington first appears in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a little girl so nervous at an Easter recitation in church that she flees the stage and wets herself. Her parents have sent her and her intense little James Baldwin stand-in of a brother to live with their maternal grandmother in a small Arkansas town. Until her early teens she lives in the close-knit but grim black quarter of Stamps, where her rock-steady grandmother raises her while running the local store. The whites on the other side of town are a distant presence, ever menacing with the threat of lynchings. Angelou’s crippled uncle quietly looms as a symbol of the meaning of being black in this time and place, with grimy, contemptuous white kids occasionally descending upon the store and treating him and the grandmother like lower beings, making a mockery of their dignity.
Then her mother divorces her father and takes Angelou back to live with her in St. Louis, where Angelou meets a near-white grandmother with a German accent, marvels at urban amenities such as indoor plumbing, and comes to worship her gorgeous, eternally savvy man-trap of a mother. But soon her mother’s boyfriend rapes her, after which she all but refuses to speak, and she is banished to Stamps. She remains essentially silent to all but her brother for years. But by her late teens she rejoins her mother, who has moved to the Bay Area. Today what remains of the San Francisco neighborhood where they settled is the seedy Western Addition district, steadily shrunken by gentrification; but in the 1930s and 1940s it was a thriving center of African American life, and Angelou paints a loving portrait of a bygone type of black neighborhood.
Visiting her father, who now lives in Los Angeles with a new wife, Angelou ends up being dragged along with him on a drunken junket to Mexico, where she watches him cheat on his wife and then drives for hours—her first time behind the wheel—back across the border with him passed out in the backseat. Misled by some things that she has read, she goes through a spell of wondering whether she, as a gangly, small-breasted woman, is a hermaphrodite or a lesbian. Partly to dispel any question on the matter, she solicits a local boy to deflower her. This leaves her pregnant, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ends with her going to sleep with her new son.
In the wake of Sounder, Roots, The Color Purple, Oprah Winfrey, and the explosion of black autobiographies, Angelou’s first memoir cannot register as freshly as it did in 1969. But back then first-person narratives by black women were thin on the ground. Personal accounts of racial discrimination were eagerly sought by whites seeking to understand “those people,” while blacks justly valued them as overdue cris de coeur. It also did not hurt that the book’s descriptions of bodily functions and sex were frank for their time. And so the reviewers and the readers of Angelou’s book cherished it for its “honesty.”
But in the sequel, Gather Together in My Name, the honesty begins to look more and more formulaic. Since these books are autobiography, we accept that the events that Angelou describes actually occurred. But her adversities and adventures begin to seem increasingly in need of explanation. She is seventeen, for example, when she carries her son to term. The father was a virtual stranger who never appears again. Was there no question of an abortion? This was a choice then, just as it is now. Angelou openly avows in Gather Together that she is not religious, and she also says that she would never have considered welfare. There are any number of reasons why a working-class teenager between the wars would choose to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term, but there are just as many reasons why she would choose otherwise, and Angelou never lets us into how her mind was working.
Questions of this kind become more urgent as Gather Together in My Name proceeds. Angelou dines with a lesbian couple who make advances on her and becomes disoriented from her first experience with marijuana. As a desperate measure to distract her unwanted suitors, she suggests an arrangement whereby she procures men for them to sleep with for money. Never mind that this would not be anybody’s first idea for escaping a sexually awkward situation.
And Angelou actually spends months pimping for these women! This, remember, was a staid eighteen-year-old with an infant son. Angelou gives no indication that she was desperate for cash: she has been supporting herself with a solid waitressing job. And she has an avowed proclivity for reading the likes of Thomas Wolfe in her spare time. Why, then, did she make this particular choice? Not long afterward, she becomes involved with an older man who frequents the restaurant at which she works. He claims that he needs a large sum of money to divorce his wife, and suggests that she work as a prostitute in a brothel for Mexican wage-laborers to earn the money. And she does! This prim, bookish, withdrawn little girl discussing “The Fall of the House of Usher” with her brother heads for the whorehouse. She even has the money to pay a woman to take care of her son while she is turning tricks. Again, why? And as soon as she starts working there, the man for whom she is extending herself in this horrible, sacrificial way suddenly becomes a glowering pimp who insists that she call him “Daddy,” employs the brothel’s madam, and is revealed to have a pretty young wife whom he has no intention of leaving. And yet she sticks with him for a good while. Why?
The people in these flamboyant tales—the narrator included—have a pulp-novel incoherence. By the time one turns to the third installment in Angelou’s saga of herself, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, one has given up the search for any kind of motives or reasons. One night Angelou is at a white party and, feeling out of place, gets drunk alone in the kitchen. Hours later she comes back out into the living room and the only people left are a white female cabaret singer and some male friends. One thing leads to another, and, fascinated with Angelou’s blackness and poise, they wonder if she might be able to take the white woman’s place at the club. Angelou, having never sung in her life, ventures to sing a calypso song in a put-on West Indian accent. They are entranced and set her up with an audition for the owner of the cabaret. She practices a bit over the next few days, and lo and behold! She gets the gig and is a big hit—which marks the beginning of the show-business career that takes up the rest of the book.
But any number of us oiled up with a few drinks could do a charming party turn without winding up as the attraction at a tony supper club. Josephine Baker did not become the toast of Paris by just shaking her booty for some theater gypsies as a party wound down. She paid her dues in a touring chorus line, and gradually attracted attention for making funny faces, and was rewarded with a respectable third-banana speaking part in the authors’ next show, and got some more attention, and so on. But all Angelou had to do, it appears, was get up and sing “Run Joe” for a few tipsy strangers and c’est ça. We can read between the lines that Angelou also danced well, because before long she nabs a featured dancing spot in the production of Porgy and Bess that toured to such acclaim in the 1950s. It is exciting to read her account of this legendary production as it toured Europe—until we begin to wonder just how Angelou got the part when, by her own admission, she screwed up her audition, and hundreds of other talented people were lined up around the block outside.
Presumably it was her dancing; but nowhere have we been given an indication of how she acquired the chops. Earlier she teams up with a man in a small-time jitterbugging and tap act. And how do you think this happened? A man she meets waitressing says that he needs a dance partner, and she falls into a split. Alas, she catches her foot in a floor heater—but still he takes her on. I don’t mean to be tiresome, but why? Of course, she acquits herself nicely in clubs all over the city. Never mind that countless adolescent girls taking after-school ballet classes can do a split and catch their foot on a table leg, but they do not end up dancing for Michael Smuin.
It’s as if Frederick Douglass simply mentioned that “I had taught myself to read and write, and hence wrote the book you are reading” instead of providing the extraordinary account of his education: how he studied letters on marked shipyard timbers, traded bread for reading lessons with white boys, and closely studied Webster’s American Spelling Book. And the subsequent installments of the Angelou story do not relieve the reader’s confusion about it all. Angelou next marries a white man who frequents a record shop where she works (a job that she gets when the white proprietor sees her coming in often and just singles her out as someone who looks like a good hire). After a few years, the marriage ends because he decides that he is “tired of being married.” He is quickly gone and is basically never mentioned again. But was that really it? Angelou suggests that he was rather controlling, but this is a problem in all of her subsequent relationships as well. In an autobiography in which a black woman marries outside of her race in the 1950s, we need to know more.
“I took my young son, Guy, and joined the beatnik brigade,” Angelou mentions out of nowhere at the start of The Heart of a Woman, book four. She wore her hair “natural” and lived in a commune with whites. Why? This was not the typical choice of the working-class black person in the 1950s. Who were the people she lived with? What led to this choice? But Angelou only gives this passing phase a page or so. In the last book, a white manager whom Angelou “knows around” gives her open-ended financial support, asserting simply that she is the most talented person he knows. But at the time Angelou was a small-time nightclub singer with a minor theatrical resume, who had yet to publish anything except one piece in an obscure Cuban journal of Marxism. No one had even hinted at this point that she was a star in the making in any arena. So the gentleman’s generosity makes no sense, like most everything else in this didactic tale.
There are other questions. Why did Angelou, with her frequently noted passion for books and learning, not aspire to a college education? I’m sure she had her reasons, but I find it difficult to glean them from her presentation of herself. She gives hints of an anti-establishment temper. After a spell living in abandoned cars in a city dump with teenaged runaways (why?), she writes: “I knew I knew very little, but I was certain that the things I had yet to learn wouldn’t be taught to me at George Washington High School.” And there are occasional indications of a leeriness of “bourgeois blacks.” Of her father’s second wife, she grouses: “When I met Delores she had all the poses of the Black bourgeoisie without the material basis to support the postures,” and at another point she briefly notes that “the small percentage of classmates who went on to college had become unbearably stuck up and boring.” And yet this is someone who casually remarks that her impression of Europe in her early twenties included Dickens, Cockney accents, Maupassant, “beery burghers,” Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, and Open City. This is not the cultural baggage of the typical working-class person, of any color or any era. One of the lesbians for whom she pimps says: “You speak such good English, you must have a diploma.” Billie Holiday does not hesitate to call her a “square.”
Angelou even maintains a sense of herself as “not one of the boys”: in her relationship with a laconic meat-and-potatoes bail bondsman, she sweetly notes that “he was Tom to his friends, but to establish myself as a type different from the people he knew, I called him Thomas.” But why was Thomas, who was unlikely to have much to say about Rossellini or those burghers, less “boring” for Angelou than the middle-class black men who shared her Weltanschauung? Before the 1960s, bookish black women of Angelou’s origins typically became schoolteachers, which was one of the few dignified professions open to black women at the time. A subset strove to get a college degree: in the Bay Area, San Francisco City College beckoned, as it still does, as a way to get a degree from a solid institution for a nominal fee. But instead Angelou drives cable cars, cooks, pimps, does exotic dancing, turns tricks, and sleeps in abandoned cars, all the while poring over serious literature. Why?
The selective nature of Angelou’s narrative style extends to her depictions of the main characters. I should more properly term them “people,” as this is a memoir rather than a novel. But such is the nature of Angelou’s style that the reality of these characters is often easy to forget.
Consider Angelou’s son Guy. He is a cocoa-butter saint who does not do a single bad thing in all six books. His mother love is so deep that when Angelou gets back from a year’s absence touring, he breaks out into a rash and nearly goes mad out of fear that she might leave again. Threatened in his mid-teens by a murderous gang over a girl, he stands them down with nary a blink. Angelou is furious with a man responsible for getting Guy’s neck broken in a car accident, but Guy, immobilized in a head cast for weeks, cannot even consider casting a stone: “If I can see Richard and understand that he has been more hurt than I, what about you?” As a college student, he soberly intones: “Now, I am a man. Your life is your own, and mine belongs to me. I am not rejecting you, I’m just explaining that our relationship has changed.” Only when he and Angelou are parted does she give us oblique reports that Guy has become “difficult to control,” but the implication is only that he is a spirited young boy testing his wings.
Consider also the mother “character.” Vivian Baxter is one of my favorites in the chronicle, with her scotch on the rocks in one hand and her cigarette in the other, dressed to the teeth and staring anything down. I started waiting for her re-appearances as I would those of a favorite next-door-neighbor character in a sitcom. But a sitcom type, a kind of Winona on Good Times, is all we get. After Angelou leaves home in Gather Together in My Name, she has Vivian walk on a couple of times, toss off some savory aphorisms stage center, and exit. Yet this is the woman who gave Angelou away to her grandmother for several years—and while married to her father, not as a cash-strapped girl on her own. Just once, late in the series, Angelou attributes this in passing to “immaturity.” After the rape episode, a few months of Angelou’s sullen silence is too much for Vivian to take, and she sends her back to Stamps. Were there not a few “issues” here? Vivian, in all of her wisdom, also appears to have chosen one very weak man after another. But Angelou just gives us outfits, pretty skin, scents, and her “I’ve got some talk for you.”
In some instances, Angelou becomes simply a caricaturist; and this extends to her use of language. Angelou is well aware that African American speech comprises a continuum, with standard English on one end and Black English on the other, summing this up in a fine paragraph:
In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drops’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said “It be’s like that sometimes.”
Yet rarely in her six books does Angelou depict herself or any other principal saying the likes of “It be’s like that sometimes.” More often than not, she has her working-class black subjects speaking in highly unlikely ways for the situations in which she depicts them.
Guy is the most extreme case. He always sounds like Andy Hardy: “Oh, Mother, come now.” Or: “I have not decided just what I want to do. Whether I shall stay in Ghana and finish at the university, or go to another country to finish my education.” Or my favorite: “Gee, I’m famished.” Surely Guy commanded standard English; he and his mother were word hounds and passed the time playing Scrabble. But the simple fact is that a young black boy of working-class origins who talked like this all the time would not have friends. Casual speech is used between parents and children, but Guy always talks to his own mother as if he were talking to a receptionist. The same is true with Angelou’s brother Bailey. He has an active social life among the humble neighborhood folk, but in a moment of emotional crisis he is suddenly Leslie Howard: “There is a tide and time in every man’s life,” he declaims, “when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance.” Is this really what this man bred in the rural black South said as he packed his bags in a huff?
Angelou writes herself talking this way as well. A man proposes to her when she is already engaged, and her response is: “I’m obliged to clear up the matter with Thomas.” The contrast is especially telling when Angelou talks this way while another black character dwells casually in the vernacular. Billie Holiday says: “Chicken and rice is always good. But fry that sucker. Fry him till he’s ready. I can’t stand no goddamn rare chicken.” And Angelou replies: “Billie, I don’t claim to be a great singer, but I know how to mix groceries.” Mix groceries? Angelou seems to feel that it’s all right to have minor players speaking naturally, but that major personages must have their speech cleaned up.
Now, the norms of public use of language have indeed changed over the past thirty years. When Angelou came of age in the 1940s, vernacular speech was limited to a narrower range in writing and speechmaking. Education still included oratorical training (Angelou won an Elks Club oratorical contest as a child), and Black English had yet to be analyzed and celebrated as a legitimate variety of speech. Angelou is not the only black writer of pre-1960s vintage inclined to write black characters “upward,” out of a sense that Black English does not belong on the printed page beyond dialect poems and spiritual lyrics. But what is so troublesome in Angelou’s memoirs is the linguistic double standard: only the stars are written “upward,” despite their humble Southern roots.
The result is that the conversations do not ring true. A down-to-earth black mentor says to Angelou: “O.K., old sweet nappy-head thing. Come on and talk to Uncle Wilkie.” Angelou replies: “I’m so unhappy. And I have done such harm to Clyde.” But when revealing despair to an intimate, the working-class black woman does not typically speak like Claudette Colbert. Indeed, it was common in movies of Colbert’s time to have characters of lowly origin somehow speaking plummy high English while their relatives and their intimates spoke the language of the streets, and Angelou indicates that she frequented such flicks. This lends the movies an air of fantasy that impedes their communication with most moderns, and in Angelou’s books it has a similar distancing effect.
To be sure, one senses that Angelou actually was something of a verbal outlier among her crowd. There is the lesbian’s comment about her “good English,” and her impulse to call a man “Thomas” who was known elsewhere as Tom. And this seems to be the verbal reflection of a general remove that she maintains between herself and others. With her diction, she holds the reader, too, at arm’s length. Her narrative language is pleasantly lapidary, but it also tends to aim even higher than the literary norm in word-choice and syntax. Here is a description of a high-speed car trip:
The drive to the airport was an adventure in motoring and a lesson in conversational dissembling....Noticing that he was conducting a car, he would swivel his head occasionally and give a moment’s attention to the road.
“Motoring,” “dissembling,” “conducting a car”: this leaning toward ten-dollar words is typical of all of Angelou’s books, in which one “telephones” rather than calls and “assists” instead of helps, in which a living room is “commodious” instead of large. In Africa, Angelou has people “telling of” things rather than talking about them. This preference for decorative vocabulary lends the narrative a certain posed and precious quality, a succession of pretty scenes instead of life as it is lived by real people. This is not good in a writer who prides herself on probity.
And the tendency extends beyond mere word-choice into general issues of presentation. In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, a man whom Angelou has a significant relationship with is never described as anything but “The African.” I was impressed with how seamlessly she managed to craft page after page without anyone happening to address him directly or refer to him by name. But if the man was so important to her, then why does she withhold something as basic as his name? If for some reason she wanted to maintain his privacy, why not a false name for the book? Then the couple fall out so badly that she summons her family and breaks with him for good—but she gives us only the merest hint of what the fight was about.
All of this results in Angelou herself remaining a kind of cardboard cutout, especially after the first volume. I have never read autobiographical writing where I had such a hard time summoning a sense of how the subject talks, or a sense of who the subject really is.
But in the end these are not quite the right questions. For the subject of Maya Angelou’s memoirs is finally not herself at all. The subject is African American life. Around the middle of the fourth book I realized that what Angelou intends is to pose the variegated life that she has led as a framework upon which to hang a celebration and a defense of black American people as a whole. And when regarded in this way, as apologetic writing rather than as autobiographical writing, the gaps and the tics in these books make sense, revealing a meaning and a value in Angelou’s series beyond its brute confectionary appeal.
When Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the late 1960s, the black writer in America tended to write under an imperative to teach a lesson that is now old news for most of us: that African American culture is a vibrant, resilient culture rather than an unhealthy deviation from the American mainstream. Angelou was on the front lines of this effort, a literary manifestation of the imperative that reigned in the black scholarship of the period to “combat the contentions of Negro inferiority,” as John Hope Franklin put it in 1963 in “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar.”
Thus Angelou’s books are laced with salutary observations about what she calls, as was common among blacks in the segregated era in which she grew up, “my people”: the music of black voices, obsessive references (in the first two books especially) to how clean-scrubbed black people are, dating rituals, and church traditions—this latter pointing up her missionary impulse, in that Angelou avows that she herself is not religious. This is all tangential to the customary themes and materials of the chronicle of an individual life. But Angelou is celebrating “her people” as much as herself.
And in this regard the stiff language reveals itself as an effort to show that black people are capable of mastering and artfully using standard English—a rebuke to the Amos ‘n’ Andy stereotype. Blacks of Angelou’s generation came of age before the erosion throughout America of the assumption that standard English was one’s Sunday best. In those days, scruffy speakers were carefully “cleaned up” in the press; pop music was sung to lyrics as crafted as light verse. Thus Guy’s “Gee, I’m famished” instead of the more likely “Man, I’m hungry.”
The didactic impulse also explains Angelou’s stagy portrait of Africa. Moving to Egypt with an African husband and relocating to Ghana after the marriage dissolves, Angelou limns a utopian cartoon where the sun is always shining; all men are ebony statues with pearly white teeth; all women are elegant, grounded, and sensual; and human relations are deathlessly warm and supportive, decorated by beautiful formulas of address and charming rituals of ceremonial respect. Surely Angelou saw more than this; but she is on a proselytizing mission, teaching her audience never to think that Africa is a dark continent full of savages. This is why these people, who are dignified individuals, “tell of” things rather than “talk about” them.
This also explains the passages in which Angelou falls into playing the victim as much as being the victim. She attends a speech by Malcolm X in which he says that “any white American who says he’s your friend is either weak ... or he’s an infiltrator.” This is her judgment: “Malcolm’s words were harsh, but too close to the bitter truth to argue.” The realities of the period notwithstanding, surely this is a bit of a pose: did Angelou really doubt the sincerity of the white kids getting beaten up on the Freedom Rides? What about the various white people whom she thanks in the books’ acknowledgments? Disturbed by her first reading of Genet’s The Blacks, in which blacks turn out to be as morally corrupt as whites when they attain power, Angelou muses: “Black people could never be like whites. We were different. More respectful, more merciful, more spiritual.” She goes on to defend this sentiment by lauding black cooks for not poisoning their employers’ food, by praising blacks as a whole for always turning the other cheek. It was one thing to entertain hopes of black innocence shortly after the eclipse of colonialism in Africa in the early 1960s; but Angelou wrote this passage, which comes from The Heart of a Woman, in the late 1970s.
But Angelou was toiling in the service of a broader point, speaking to the naked racism that she has known and insisting that she and other blacks got past it. There are plenty of episodes of genuine bigotry in these books. When she is performing in The Blacks, a white woman approaches her after a performance to extol how much the play taught her about the black predicament, but the conversation goes wrong and ends with the woman recoiling from Angelou’s touch and hissing: “You people!” It is in response to episodes such as this one that Angelou confirms her didactic impulse at the end of her new book, the final book, describing her plans for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
I thought if I wrote a book, I would have to examine the quality in the human spirit that continues to rise despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Rise out of the physical pain and the psychological cruelties.
Rise from being victims of rape and abuse and abandonment to the determination to be no victim of any kind.
Rise and be prepared to move on and ever on.
Enter, then, a passage such as this one:
We carried the badge of a barbarous history sewn to our dark skins ... those actions which appeared to be childish most often were exhibitions of bravado, not unlike humming a jazz tune while walking into a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. I drank the gin and ignored the tea. Obviously both passages are meant to be lyrical, and lyricism often submerges the specifics of reality in a larger truth. It is no surprise, then, that Angelou’s memoirs often veer into the theatrical.
She is certainly alive to the dangerous seductions of the black victim routine. Dressing down some whites for a perceived insult, Angelou purrs: “There was a delicious silence. For the moment, I had them and their uneasiness in the palm of my hand. The sense of power was intoxicating.” But shortly afterward she acknowledges that “the old habits of withdrawing into righteous indignation or lashing out furiously against insults were not applicable in this circumstance. Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party. The historically oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of victimization.” Holiness, sanctity: the words are revealing, as they apply to the general tone of all her books.
Angelou’s memoirs are really tracts, and this explains the succinctness and the transparency of her prose, its striking and even jarring simplicity. These books sometimes seem written for children rather than adults. They are all on the short side, and divided into ever shorter chapters as the series progresses: the final installment is more a succession of vignettes than a narrative at all. But this format makes sense when we realize that Angelou is, in her way, preaching to the masses. Malcolm X apparently sensed this as one of Angelou’s skills, taking her on as a deputy out of admiration for her talent for talking to the common man. We never quite glean this from Angelou’s presentation of her “character”—the Queen’s English of “I have done such harm to Clyde” seems unlikely to have struck a chord on 125th Street—but the style of the memoirs is the tip-off.
Explaining in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes why she finally could not feel that Africa was her true home, she describes being unable to shake a feeling of self-conscious displacement: “Here I am, Maya Angelou, dancing in Africa.” This unwittingly sums up the reader’s impression of all six books: Angelou striding through the narrative as a kind of stand-in figure for the Black American in Troubled Times. In a tough period in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she portrays her mental state this way: “I had written a juicy melodrama in which I was to be the star. Pathetic, poignant, isolated. I planned to drift out of the wings, a little girl martyr.”
Hence she is less interested in portraying herself and her son as individuals than in celebrating the general African American cult of the mother. No wonder we can never “smell” Guy as a real boy; she is offering only an archetype of the black American son. Similarly, the self-involved diva Vivian Baxter would be in for quite a bit of criticism in a memoir by a younger black woman in this era of exquisite awareness of the psychological legacies of faulty parenting; but Angelou’s goal was to fashion Vivian into an idealized mother “character” for herself. And, as it happens, Odetta has a walk-on. As we would predict, we learn nothing of what she was like as a person or a performer. Instead Angelou has Odetta briefly regale her with exactly the kind of self-satisfied aphoristic wisdom with which she would irritate my roommate twenty-five years later.
Angelou’s writings are the product of a worse and blissfully bygone America. White readers who feel enlightened enough about race issues to have wearied of being lectured about them may be put off by these books today. And a black person likely would not, and really should not, write a memoir in this style today. I must admit a guilty relief that the last volume ends in the late 1960s. I suspect that Angelou’s chocolate icons gliding through a vaudeville version of black history could speak only fitfully about our times, when Jesse Jackson (and even Al Sharpton) has replaced Martin Luther King, and victim politics has taken its place among the varieties of communal uplift, and black success has gone from happenstance to norm, and most African countries have slid into violent black-on-black despair.
During a fracas with white school administrators in The Heart of a Woman, Angelou asks: “How could the two women understand a black mother who had nothing to give her son except a contrived arrogance?” “Contrived arrogance” is exactly what Angelou seeks to give her readers. An outsider today might read this as the same kind of lordly superciliousness that my roommate sensed in Odetta. But contrived arrogance was once a useful and even natural form of defense against bigotry. Contrary to the insistence of a noisy fringe, it serves no valuable purpose today, and in this, Angelou’s books date themselves. I don’t quite see how readers can find art in these books, but it must be said that she has helped to pave the way for contemporary black writers who are able to enjoy the luxury of being merely individuals, no longer representatives of the race, only themselves.