Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman:

The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou

Originally published on’s Classic Literature Page

Of the twentieth-century American lives that have been transformed into books via the art of the memoir—and that have been transformed via the act of writing the memoir itself—perhaps none reflects us as a nation as well and as variously as that lived by Maya Angelou, whose six autobiographies (now published as the 1,167-page Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou) portray an ever-evolving human being who seems with every new volume to encompass ever more of the breadths and depths and heights of the spangled American experience.

Tobias Wolff’s memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army show us the flipside of the American dream in the nuclear/post-nuclear-family age, and the Malcolm X/Alex Haley collaborative construction The Autobiography of Malcolm X composes a multifaceted portrait of a mind fashioning and refashioning itself in constant response to a profoundly uneasy home-nation, but Maya Angelou’s series of memoirs seem to do all this and more.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928, and seeming to live more lives in America and abroad than six books could possibly contain, Maya Angelou is one of our country’s true renaissance women (I find it interesting that her name so closely resembles that of the quintessential Renaissance man himself, Michelangelo). Angelou has been a singer, dancer, actor, director, songwriter, journalist, educator, lecturer, poet, playwright, memoirist, and mother; she’s also been deeply involved in civil rights activities and politics; and in her leaner years she worked as a fry cook, a streetcar conductor, and even as a prostitute and madame. Her stature reaching incredible heights when she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, Angelou’s is without question one of the most diverse and remarkable lives of the past and current century. In fact, when I read her first five memoirs in my youth, I felt that in each subsequent book I was discovering an entirely new America. Her story is our story, and it’s as vast and eclectic as we are.

In 1969, partially at the suggestion of James Baldwin, Angelou wrote and published her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as a way to deal with her grief over two major losses. Having become close friends with Malcolm X in Ghana just a year before his assassination in 1965, and then losing her friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to another assassination just after he’d asked her to organize a march in 1968, Angelou delved into her deepest self to create an unforgettable self-portrait. Rather than exploring her recent losses, however, she focused in her first volume (which wasn’t envisioned as the first in a series) on the first seventeen years of her life.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou tells of her early unstable existence of being shuttled between her family in Stamps, Arkansas, and St. Louis. The book’s most overwhelming event occurs when at age eight Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, after which she tells her story to her brother, which then leads to the man being kicked to death, presumably by Angelou’s uncles. In response to her rapist’s death, Angelou became almost completely mute for five years, feeling that her voice had killed the man.

Regaining her voice again through the help of a friend and teacher who introduced her to classic literature—especially Shakespeare—Angelou became a precocious and engaged teenager. But then in a wholly rational and irrational decision to become initiated into real sexuality, she asks a nearly anonymous young man to sleep with her, knowing full well that the episode would lead to pregnancy, which it does. Even without the book’s surrounding and shaping events, the young man’s priceless reaction to Angelou’s proposal is reason enough to read this amazing book.

Her second memoir, Gather Together in My Name, was published in 1974 and focuses on the next two years of Angelou’s life, when she struggled to hold together an existence for herself and her son in any way possible. This memoir wasn’t as well received as her world-famous debut, but in my case, this was the book that hooked me. Watching a young Black woman go from shady jobs and relationships to even shadier jobs and relationships, including one with an Episcopalian preacher who seduces her into prostitution, I found myself entranced with Angelou’s search for meaning and purpose and solace in an (at best) indifferent world.

Her third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas, was published in 1976 and chronicles her early life as a traveling entertainer. It covers the years between 1949 and 1955, and the main events of the volume describe her part in the international tour of the musical Porgy and Bess, but the more significant material involves her short-lived marriage to Greek sailor Tosh Angelos (who supplies the basis for her stage name) and her increasingly important relationship with her son Clyde (aka Guy). Although this memoir is fascinating to jazz aficionados such as myself, this is the volume that my friends and I unanimously agreed was our least favorite. One specific turnoff was that despite her great friendship with many gay entertainers, Angelou makes a homophobic remark about how children shouldn’t be raised around their influence. More important, though, is that her exploits in music and dance, for which she was fairly famous, aren’t nearly as interesting as her explorations of her inner life, for which her writing was making her even more justly famous.

Then with her 1981 memoir, The Heart of a Woman, Angelou returns to the heart of matters, and in a converse unanimity, this is the volume that almost all my friends and I hold most dear. Angelou still focuses on her relationships with musicians and actors, but here the relationships are more profound and profoundly drawn, whether they’re positive (James Earl Jones, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, etc.) or positively disturbing (Billie Holiday at her most shocking). More crucial is Angelou’s increasing involvement with the civil rights movement, which leads her to become the New York Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In this capacity, she comes into contact with several African anti-colonialists, and she falls in love with the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, whom she marries and follows with her son to Cairo—and whom she eventually leaves, taking her son, her heart, and the reader to Ghana to discover the heart of Africa, and perhaps of herself.

Her 1986 volume, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, continues her journey into herself as an American, an African, and a woman as she relates in moving, unsettling, and hilarious detail the struggles she finds in Ghana for identity and autonomy, in herself and in the people who are all attempting to come to terms with who they are as a varied and occasionally unified people. She meets Malcolm X in Ghana, and in experiences similar to those described in his Autobiography, she finds herself not fully embraced by Africa, and as a response she discovers just how much of an American she is at heart.

This will of course lead her back to America, but readers had to wait until her 2002 volume, A Song Flung Up To Heaven, for the cycle to come full circle, the series of memoirs leading Angelou right up to the time that culminated in King’s assassination and that led her to embark upon her long autobiographical journey. For some reason, I’ve waited even longer, though, always wanting to see Angelou arrive at her embarkation point but somehow not wanting to arrive there myself, and as a result, I haven’t read this final volume yet.

In the series as I’ve read it, Angelou has not yet become the author of her life, and as she’s still among the living today, perhaps this has kept the still living reader wanting to keep the still living writer in process in his mind. Another part of me simply always wants to save more of Angelou’s life for later. At eighty-one and unlikely to let her memoirs overlap into meta-memoirs, Angelou has fully drawn herself. Perhaps one day I’ll be ready to gaze at the completed portrait.

—David Wiley

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