Angelou, Maya: General Commentary
MAYA ANGELOU: GENERAL COMMENTARY
MARY JANE LUPTON (ESSAY DATE SUMMER 1990)
SOURCE: Lupton, Mary Jane. "Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity." Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 2 (summer 1990): 257-76.
In the following essay, Lupton analyzes the plot, characters, and structure of Angelou's first five autobiographies, noting the themes of hope and renewal at the conclusion of each work.
Now my problem I have is I love life, I love living life and I love the art of living, so I try to live my life as a poetic adventure, everything I do from the way I keep my house, cook, make my husband happy, or welcome my friends, raise my son; everything is part of a large canvas I am creating, I am living beneath.
(Chrisman interview 46)
This energetic statement from a 1977 interview with Maya Angelou merely hints at the variety of roles and experiences which sweep through what is presently her five-volume autobiographical series: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), TheHeartofaWoman (1981), and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986).1 It is fitting that Angelou, so adept at metaphor, should compare her "poetic adventure" to the act of painting: "… everything is part of a large canvas I am creating, I am living beneath." Like an unfinished painting, the autobiographical series is an ongoing creation, in a form that rejects the finality of a restricting frame. Its continuity is achieved through characters who enter the picture, leave, and reappear, and through certain interlaced themes—self-acceptance, race, men, work, separation, sexuality, motherhood. All the while Angelou lives "beneath," recording the minutest of details in a constantly shifting environment and giving attention to the "mundane, though essential, ordinary moments of life" (O'Neale 34).
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first and most highly praised volume in the series. It begins with the humiliations of childhood and ends with the birth of a child. At its publication, critics, not anticipating a series, readily appreciated the clearly developed narrative form. In 1973, for example, Sidonie Smith discussed the "sense of an ending" in Caged Bird as it relates to Angelou's acceptance of Black womanhood: "With the birth of her child Maya is herself born into a mature engagement with the forces of life" (374). But with the introduction in 1974 of Angelou's second autobiographical volume, Gather Together in My Name, the tight structure appeared to crumble; childhood experiences were replaced by episodes which a number of critics consider disjointed or bizarre. Selwyn Cudjoe, for instance, noted the shift from the "intense solidity and moral center" in Caged Bird to the "conditions of alienation and fragmentation" in Gather Together, conditions which affect its organization and its quality, making it "conspicuously weak" (17, 20). Lynn Z. Bloom found the sequel "less satisfactory" because the narrator "abandons or jeopardizes the maturity, honesty, and intuitive good judgment toward which she had been moving in Caged Bird " (5). Crucial to Bloom's judgment is her concept of movement toward, which insinuates the achievement of an ending.
The narrator, as authentic recorder of the life, indeed changes during the second volume, as does the book's structure; the later volumes abandon the tighter form of Caged Bird for an episodic series of adventures whose so-called "fragments" are reflections of the kind of chaos found in actual living. In altering the narrative structure, Angelou shifts the emphasis from herself as an isolated consciousness to herself as a Black woman participating in diverse experiences among a diverse class of peoples. As the world of experience widens, so does the canvas.
What distinguishes, then, Angelou's autobiographical method from more conventional autobiographical forms is her very denial of closure. The reader of autobiography expects a beginning, a middle, and an end—as occurs in Caged Bird. She or he also expects a central experience, as we indeed are given in the extraordinary rape sequence of Caged Bird. But Angelou, by continuing her narrative, denies the form and its history, creating from each ending a new beginning, relocating the center to some luminous place in a volume yet to be. Stretching the autobiographical canvas, she moves forward: from being a child; to being a mother; to leaving the child; to having the child, in the fifth volume, achieve his independence. Nor would I be so unwise as to call the fifth volume the end. For Maya Angelou, now a grandmother, has already published a moving, first-person account in Woman's Day of the four years of anguish surrounding the maternal kidnapping of her grandson Colin.
Throughout the more episodic volumes, the theme of motherhood remains a unifying element, with Momma Henderson being Angelou's link with the Black folk tradition—as George Kent, Elizabeth Schultz, and other critics have mentioned. Since traditional solidity of development is absent, one must sometimes search through three or four books to trace Vivian Baxter's changing lovers, Maya Angelou's ambivalence towards motherhood, or her son Guy's various reactions to his non-traditional upbringing. Nonetheless, the volumes are intricately related through a number of essential elements: the ambivalent autobiographical voice, the flexibility of structure to echo the life process, the intertextual commentary on character and theme, and the use of certain recurring patterns to establish both continuity and continuation. I have isolated the mother-child pattern as a way of approaching the complexity of Angelou's methods. One could as well select other kinds of interconnected themes: the absent and/or substitute father, the use of food as a psycho-sexual symbol, the dramatic/symbolic use of images of staring or gazing, and other motifs which establish continuity within and among the volumes.
Stephen Butterfield says of Caged Bird : "Continuity is achieved by the contact of mother and child, the sense of life begetting life that happens automatically in spite of all confusion—perhaps also because of it" (213). The consistent yet changing connection for Maya Angelou through the four subsequent narratives is that same contact of mother and child—with herself and her son Guy; with herself and her own mother, Vivian Baxter; with herself and her paternal grandmother; and, finally, with the child-mother in herself.
Moreover, in extending the traditional one-volume form, Angelou has metaphorically mothered another book. The "sense of life begetting life" at the end of Caged Bird can no longer signal the conclusion of the narrative. The autobiographical moment has been reopened and expanded; Guy's birth can now be seen symbolically as the birth of another text. In a 1975 interview with Carol Benson, Angelou uses such a birthing metaphor in describing the writing of Gather Together : "If you have a child, it takes nine months. It took me three-and-a-half years to write Gather Together, so I couldn't just drop it" (19). This statement makes emphatic what in the autobiographies are much more elusive comparisons between creative work and motherhood; after a three-anda-half-year pregnancy she gives birth to Gather Together, indicating that she must have planned the conception of the second volume shortly after the 1970 delivery of Caged Bird.
Each of the five volumes explores, both literally and metaphorically, the significance of motherhood. I will examine this theme from two specific perspectives: first, Angelou's relationship to her mother and to mother substitutes, especially to Momma Henderson; second, Angelou's relationship to her son as she struggles to define her own role as mother/artist. Throughout the volumes Angelou moves backwards and forwards, from connection to conflict. This dialectic of Black mother-daughterhood, introduced in the childhood narrative, enlarges and contracts during the series, finding its fullest expression in Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas.
In flux, in defiance of chronological time, the mother-child configuration forms the basic pattern against which other relationships are measured and around which episodes and volumes begin or end. Motherhood also provides the series with a literary unity, as Angelou shifts positions—from mother to granddaughter to child—in a non-ending text that, through its repetitions of maternal motifs, provides an ironic comment on her own sense of identity. For Angelou, despite her insistence on mother love, is trapped in the conflicts between working and mothering, independence and nurturing—conflicts that echo her ambivalence towards her mother, Vivian Baxter, and her apparent sanctification of Grandmother Henderson, the major adult figure in Caged Bird.
Annie Henderson is a solid, God-fearing, economically independent woman whose general store in Stamps, Arkansas, is the "lay center of activities in town" (Caged Bird 5), much as Annie is the moral center of the family. According to Mildred A. Hill-Lubin, the grandmother, both in Africa and in America, "has been a significant force in the stability and the continuity of the Black family and the community" (257). Hill-Lubin selects Annie Henderson as her primary example of the strong grandmother in African-American literature—the traditional preserver of the family, the source of folk wisdom, and the instiller of values within the Black community. Throughout Caged Bird Maya has ambivalent feelings for this awesome woman, whose values of self-determination and personal dignity gradually chip away at Maya's dreadful sense of being "shit color" (17). As a self-made woman, Annie Henderson has the economic power to lend money to whites; as a practical Black woman, however, she is convinced that whites cannot be directly confronted: "If she had been asked and had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly or not, she would have said that she was a realist" (39). To survive in a racist society, Momma Henderson has had to develop a realistic strategy of submission that Maya finds unacceptable. Maya, in her need to re-image her grandmother, creates a metaphor that places Momma's power above any apparent submissiveness: Momma "did an excellent job of sagging from her waist down, but from the waist up she seemed to be pulling for the top of the oak tree across the road" (24).
There are numerous episodes, both in Caged Bird and Gather Together, which involve the conflict between Maya and her grandmother over how to deal with racism. When taunted by three "powhitetrash" girls, Momma quietly sings a hymn; Maya, enraged, would like to have a rifle (Caged Bird 23-27). Or, when humiliated by a white dentist who'd rather put his "hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's" (160), Annie is passive; Maya subsequently invents a fantasy in which Momma runs the dentist out of town. In the italicized dream text (161-62), Maya endows her grandmother with superhuman powers; Momma magically changes the dentist's nurse into a bag of chicken seed. In reality the grandmother has been defeated and humiliated, her only reward a mere ten dollars in interest for a loan she had made to the dentist (164). In Maya's fantasy Momma's "eyes were blazing like live coals and her arms had doubled themselves in length "; in actuality she "looked tired" (162).
This richly textured passage is rendered from the perspective of an imaginative child who recreates her grandmother—but in a language that ironically transforms Annie Henderson from a Southern Black storekeeper into an eloquent heroine from a romantic novel: "Her tongue had thinned and the words rolled off well enunciated." Instead of the silent "nigra" (159) of the actual experience, Momma Henderson is now the articulate defender of her granddaughter against the stuttering dentist. Momma Henderson orders the "contemptuous scoundrel" to leave Stamps "now and herewith." The narrator eventually lets Momma speak normally, then comments: "(She could afford to slip into the vernacular because she had such eloquent command of English.)"
This fantasy is the narrator's way of dealing with her ambivalence towards Momma Henderson—a woman who throughout Caged Bird represents to Maya both strength and weakness, both generosity and punishment, both affection and the denial of affection. Here her defender is "ten feet tall with eight-foot arms," quite capable, to recall the former tree image, of reaching the top of an oak from across the road. Momma's physical transformation in the dream text also recalls an earlier description: "I saw only her power and strength. She was taller than any woman in my personal world, and her hands were so large they could span my head from ear to ear" (38). In the dentist fantasy, Maya eliminates all of Momma Henderson's "negative" traits—submissiveness, severity, religiosity, sternness, down-home speech. It would seem that Maya is so shattered by her grandmother's reaction to Dentist Lincoln, so destroyed by her illusions of Annie Henderson's power in relationship to white people, that she compensates by reversing the true situation and having the salivating dentist be the target of Momma's wrath. Significantly, this transformation occurs immediately before Momma Henderson tells Maya and Bailey that they are going to California. Its position in the text gives it the impression of finality. Any negative attitudes become submerged, only to surface later, in Gather Together, as aspects of Angelou's own ambiguity towards race, power, and identity.
In Caged Bird Momma Henderson had hit Maya with a switch for unknowingly taking the Lord's name in vain, "like whitefolks do" (87). Similarly, in Gather Together Annie slaps her granddaughter after Maya, on a visit to Stamps, verbally assaults two white saleswomen. In a clash with Momma Henderson that is both painful and final, Maya argues for "the principle of the thing," and Momma slaps her.2 Surely, Momma's slap is well intended; she wishes to protect Maya from "lunatic cracker boys" and men in white sheets, from all of the insanity of racial prejudice (78-79). The "new" Maya, who has been to the city and found a sense of independence, is caught in the clash between her recently acquired "principles" and Momma's fixed ideology. Thus the slap—but also the intention behind it—will remain in Maya's memory long after the mature Angelou has been separated from Annie Henderson's supervision. Momma makes Maya and the baby leave Stamps, again as a precaution: "Momma's intent to protect me had caused her to hit me in the face, a thing she had never done, and to send me away to where she thought I'd be safe" (79). Maya departs on the train, never to see her grandmother again.
In the third volume Angelou, her marriage falling apart, is recuperating from a difficult appendectomy. When she tells her husband Tosh that she wants to go to Stamps until she is well, he breaks the news that Annie Henderson died the day after Angelou's operation. In recording her reaction to her grandmother's death, Angelou's style shifts from its generally more conversational tone and becomes intense, religious, emotional:
Ah, Momma. I had never looked at death before, peered into its yawning chasm for the face of the beloved. For days my mind staggered out of balance. I reeled on a precipice of knowledge that even if I were rich enough to travel all over the world, I would never find Momma. If I were as good as God's angels and as pure as the Mother of Christ, I could never have Momma's rough slow hands pat my cheek or braid my hair.
Death to the young is more than that undiscovered country; despite its inevitability, it is a place having reality only in song or in other people's grief.
(Singin' and Swingin' 41)
This moving farewell, so atypical of Angelou's more worldly autobiographical style, emerges directly from a suppressed religious experience which Angelou narrates earlier in the same text—a "secret crawl through neighborhood churches" (28). These visits, done without her white husband's knowledge, culminate in Angelou's being saved at the Evening Star Baptist Church. During her purification, Angelou cries for her family: "For my fatherless son, who was growing up with a man who would never, could never, understand his need for manhood; for my mother, whom I admired but didn't understand; for my brother, whose disappointment with life was drawing him relentlessly into the clutches of death; and, finally, I cried for myself, long and loudly" (33). Annie Henderson is strangely absent from this list of family for whom Angelou cries during the short-lived conversion. But only a few pages later, Angelou remembers her grandmother's profound importance, in the elegiac passage on Momma's death.
In this passage Angelou creates a funeral song which relies on the Black gospel tradition, on the language of Bible stories, and on certain formative literary texts.3 Words like chasm, precipice, angels, and beloved have Sunday School overtones, a kind of vocabulary Angelou more typically employs for humorous effects, as in the well-known portrait of Sister Monroe (Caged Bird 32-37).4 The gospel motif, so dominant in the passage, seems directly related to Angelou's rediscovery of the Black spiritual: "The spirituals and gospel songs were sweeter than sugar. I wanted to keep my mouth full of them and the sounds of my people singing fell like sweet oil in my ears" (Singin' and Swingin' 28). During her conversion experience Angelou lies on the floor while four women march round her singing, "Soon one morning when death comes walking in my room" (33); in another spiritual the singers prepare for the "walk to Jerusalem" (31). These and similar hymns about death had been significant elements of the "folk religious tradition" of Momma Henderson (Kent 76). Now, for a brief time, they become part of the mature Angelou's experience. That their revival is almost immediately followed by the death of Momma Henderson accounts, to a large extent, for Angelou's intensely religious narrative.
Angelou's singing of the Black grandmother in this passage contains other refrains from the past, most notably her desire to have "Momma's rough slow hands pat my cheek." These are the same hands that slapped Maya for having talked back to the white saleswomen—an event that was physically to separate grandmother and granddaughter (Gather Together 86-88). That final slap, softened here, becomes a loving pat on the cheek akin to a moment in Caged Bird in which Maya describes her grandmother's love as a touch of the hand: "Just the gentle pressure of her rough hand conveyed her own concern and assurance to me" (96). Angelou's tone throughout the elegy is an attempt, through religion, to reconcile her ambivalence towards Momma Henderson by sharing her traditions. Angelou wishes to be "as good as God's angels" and as "pure as the Mother of Christ," metaphors which seem to represent Angelou's effort to close off the chasm between herself and Momma Henderson through the use of a common language, the language of the church-going grandmother.
As Momma Henderson, the revered grandmother, recedes from the narrative, Angelou's natural mother gains prominence. By the third volume Maya Angelou and Vivian Baxter have established a closeness that somewhat compensates for Maya's having been sent off to Stamps as a child, a situation so painful that Maya had imagined her mother dead:
I could cry anytime I wanted by picturing my mother (I didn't quite know what she looked like) lying in her coffin.…The face was brown, like a big O, and since I couldn't fill in the features I printed m o t h e r across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm milk.
(Caged Bird 42-43)
Like Maya's fantasy of her grandmother and Dentist Lincoln, the above passage is an imaginative revision of reality, Maya's way to control the frustrations produced by Vivian's rejection. The images of the dream text invoke romance fiction and Amazonian strength. Here the images concern, first, the artist who fills in the empty canvas (the O) with print; second, the mother-like child who cries tears of "warm milk" in sympathy for her imagined dead mother. These interlaced metaphors of writing and nurturance appear frequently in the continuing text, as Angelou explores her relationships with mothers and children.
When Maya is eight years old, she and Bailey visit their mother in St. Louis, where Maya discovers her exquisite beauty: "To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rain-bow.…She was too beautiful to have children" (Caged Bird 49-50). Ironically, this mother "too beautiful to have children" is to a large degree responsible for her own child's brutal rape. Vivian's beauty attracts a lover, Mr. Freeman, who is constantly in the house waiting for a woman who is not there, and he "uses Angelou as an extension of her mother" to satisfy his sexual urges (Demetrakopoulos 198). It could also be suggested that Vivian uses Maya, somehow knowing that in her own absence Maya will keep her lover amused. When Maya becomes ill, Vivian responds in a motherly manner: making broth, cooking Cream of Wheat, taking Maya's temperature, calling a doctor. After she discovers the rape, Vivian sends Maya to a hospital, bringing her flowers and candy (Caged Bird 69).
It is Grandmother Baxter, however, who sees to it that the rapist is punished; after the trial a policeman comes to the house and informs an unsurprised Mrs. Baxter that Freeman has been kicked to death. Mrs. Baxter is a political figure in St. Louis, a precinct captain and gambler whose light skin and "six mean children" bring her both power and respect (51). Like Momma Henderson, Grandmother Baxter is a source of strength for Maya. Both grandmothers are "strong, independent[,] skillful women who are able to manage their families and to insure their survival in a segregated and hostile society" (Hill-Lubin 260).
Despite their positive influence, however, Maya has ambivalent feelings towards her powerful grandmothers. Maya feels guilty for having lied at the trial, a guilt compounded when she learns of Grandmother Baxter's part in Freeman's murder. To stop the "poison" in her breath, Maya retreats into a "perfect personal silence" which neither of the Baxter women can penetrate, and which Maya breaks only for Bailey (73). The disastrous St. Louis sequence stops abruptly, without transition: "We were on the train going back to Stamps …" (74). Thus, the end of the visit to Grandmother Baxter parallels chapter one of Caged Bird ; a train moves from an urban center to rural Arkansas and to the protection of Annie Henderson.
Back at her grandmother's general store, Maya meets Mrs. Bertha Flowers, "the aristocrat of Black Stamps" (77). This unambivalently positive mother figure helps Maya to recover her oral language through the written text—reading A Tale of Two Cities. In a series of sharp contrasts, the narrator conveys Maya's divided feelings between the sophisticated mother figure, Mrs. Flowers, and her more provincial grandmother. Mrs. Flowers wears gloves, whereas Mrs. Henderson has rough hands. Mrs. Flowers admires white male writers, whereas Annie Henderson will not tolerate them. And in a set of contrasts that occurs almost simultaneously in the text, the literary Mrs. Flowers rewards Maya's language with sweets, whereas the religious grandmother punishes Maya's spoken words ("by the way") without making any effort to explain her anger. In an earlier passage, however, the narrator merges these basic oppositions into a dynamic interaction between two Black women: "I heard the soft-voiced Mrs. Flowers and the textured voice of my grandmother merging and melting. They were interrupted from time to time by giggles that must have come from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life). Then she was gone" (79). These contrasts appear following Maya's failed relationship with Vivian Baxter. They are indications of the split mother—the absent natural mother, the gentle Mrs. Flowers, the forceful Annie Henderson—whose divisions Angelou must articulate if she is to find her own autobiographical voice.
Although most critics have seen a wholeness in Maya's personality at the conclusion of Caged Bird, a few have observed this division of self, which Demetrakopoulos relates to Maya's conflicts about the mother: She "splits the feminine archetype of her mother's cold Venus and her grand-mother's primal warm sheltering Demeter aspects" (198). The Jungian metaphors may jar in this African-American context, but I agree with Demetrakopoulos that at the end of Caged Bird the narrator is split. She is a mother who is herself a child; a daughter torn by her notions of mother love; an uncertain Black teenager hardly capable of the heavy burden of closure placed on her by Sidonie Smith, Stephen Butterfield, Selwyn Cudjoe, and other critics.
Nor is this split mended when Angelou gives birth to Gather Together. Here she introduces herself by way of contradictions: "I was seventeen, very old, embarrassingly young, with a son of two months, and I still lived with my mother and stepfather" (3). Vivian Baxter intermittently takes care of Guy while his young mother works as a cook or shopkeeper. When Momma Henderson forces Maya and her son to leave Stamps, they go immediately to the security of Vivian's fourteen-room house in San Francisco. One gets a strong sense throughout Gather Together of Maya's dependence on her mother. Angelou admires her mother for her self-reliance, her encouragement, and her casual approach to sexuality. She also continues to be captivated by Vivian's beauty, by her "snappy-fingered, head-tossing elegance" (Singin' and Swingin' 70). On the other hand, she recognizes Vivian Baxter's flaws: "Her own mind was misted by the knowledge of a failing marriage, and the slipping away of the huge sums of money which she had enjoyed and thought her due" (Gather Together 24).
As for her son, Angelou reveals similar contradictory feelings. After quitting a job to be with Guy, Angelou writes: "A baby's love for his mother is probably the sweetest emotion we can savor" (Gather Together 90). In a more depressed mood, however, she comments that her child's disposition had "lost its magic to make me happy" (174). What Angelou does in these instances is to articulate her feelings as they convey the reality of her experiences, even though some of these negative emotions might not represent her best side.
The most dramatic mother-child episode in Gather Together occurs while Angelou is working as a prostitute. She leaves Guy with her sitter, Big Mary. Returning for Guy after several days, she learns that her son has been kidnapped. Angelou finally recovers her child, unharmed; at that moment she realizes that they are both separate individuals and that Guy is not merely a "beautiful appendage of myself" (163). Angelou's awareness of the inevitable separation of mother and child, expressed here for the first time, is a theme that she will continue to explore through the remaining autobiographical volumes.
Gather Together closes with Angelou's and Guy's returning to the protection of Vivian Baxter, following Angelou's glimpse at the horrors of heroin addiction: "I had no idea what I was going to make of my life, but I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I'd never lose it again" (181). In its tableau of mother, child, and grandmother, this concluding paragraph directly parallels the ending of Caged Bird.
In the next volume, Singin' and Swingin', the closeness between mother and daughter continues. As she matures, Angelou becomes more in control of her feelings and more objective in her assessment of Vivian Baxter's personality. Additionally, the separation of egos that Angelou perceived after locating her kidnapped son would extend to the mother-daughter and grandmother-granddaughter relationships as well. But Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas is, despite its joyful title, a mesh of conflicts—many of them existing within the autobiographical self; many of them involving separations which, although consciously chosen, become unbearable. A number of ambiguities appear throughout the book, especially as they concern the mother-child pattern which is to dominate this and the subsequent texts.
The underlying drama in Singin' and Swingin' is played out between Angelou, the single parent of a young son, and Angelou, the actress who chooses to leave that son with Vivian Baxter in order to tour Europe with the company of Porgy and Bess. Angelou is keenly aware that putting Guy in the care of his grandmother is an echo of her own child-mother experience:
The past revisited. My mother had left me with my grandmother for years and I knew the pain of parting. My mother, like me, had had her motivations, her needs. I did not relish visiting the same anguish on my son, and she, years later, told me how painful our separation was to her. But I had to work and I had to be good. I would make it up to my son and one day would take him to all the places I was going to see.
Angelou's feelings are compounded by the fact that, as a young, Black, single mother, she alone is finally responsible for giving her child a sense of stability.5 In identifying the conflict between working and mothering, Angelou offers a universalized representation of the turmoil which may arise when a woman attempts to fulfill both roles.
Angelou suffers considerably on the European tour. In some instances her longings for Guy make her sleep fitfully (147) or make her distracted—as when she sees some young Italian boys with "pale-gold complexions" who remind her of her son (148). When she is paged at a Paris train station, Angelou fears that something dreadful has happened to Guy, and she blames herself: "I knew I shouldn't have left my son. There was a telegram waiting for me to say he had been hurt somehow. Or had run away from home. Or had caught an awful disease" (151-52). On other occasions she speaks quite directly of her guilt: "I sent my dollars home to pay for Clyde's [Guy's] keep and to assuage my guilt at being away from him" (153).6
Of the many examples in Singin' and Swingin' which address this conflict, I have selected one particular passage to illustrate the ways in which Angelou articulates her ambivalence about mothering. While she is in Paris, Angelou earns extra money by singing in a nightclub and decides to send the money home rather than spend it on a room with a private bath: "Mom could buy something wonderful for Clyde every other week and tell him I'd sent it. Then perhaps he would forgive my absence" (157). The narrator shows no qualms about lying to her son; Vivian could "tell him I'd sent it." Additionally, she makes no connection between her efforts to buy forgiveness and the anger she felt as a child when her absent mother, the same "Mom" of the above passage, sent Maya a tea set and a doll with yellow hair for Christmas: "Bailey and I tore the stuffing out of the doll the day after Christmas, but he warned me that I had to keep the tea set in good condition because any day or night she might come riding up" (Caged Bird 43). Liliane K. Arensberg interprets the tea cups as "symbols of a white world beyond Maya's reach of everyday experience," whereas the torn doll "serves as an effigy of her mother by virtue of being female and a gift" (281). Although I agree with Arensberg's interpretation, I tend to read the gifts as metaphors for Maya's divided self. The preserved tea set, the torn doll—what better signifiers could there be for the split feelings of the abandoned child, who destroys one gift to show anger but saves the other in anticipation of the mother's return? I would also suggest that the seemingly inappropriate title Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas may be intended to signal the reader back to the very unmerry Christmas of Caged Bird.
In the Paris sequence the narrator seems to have suppressed, in her role as mother, some of the anguish she had experienced during childhood—although in the passage previously cited (Singin' and Swingin' 129), she recognizes the similarities between her own "pains of parting" and her son's. Angelou refers to this separation from her son so frequently in the text that he becomes a substantial part of the narrative, the source of Angelou's guilt but also the major factor in the development of dramatic tension. Angelou, in this most complex of the autobiographies, is richly and honestly rendering the split in her own psyche between being a "good" mother (being at home) and being a "bad" mother (selfishly staying in Europe). The narrator pretends to herself that her son wants a gift, thus prolonging the admission that he really wants his mother—as Maya had wanted hers.
To arrive at this interpretation the reader must move back and forth among the texts, perceiving parallels in order to decipher the narrator's motivations. The frequent references in Singin' and Swingin' to separation and to guilt give one considerable access to the narrator's complex personality; at the same time, these references demand to be read against and with the entire series—intertextuality in its strictest sense.
Angelou returns from Europe to find her son suffering from a skin disease that is an overt expression of his loneliness. In a promise that recalls the last lines of Gather Together (never again to lose her innocence), Angelou vows to Guy: "I swear to you, I'll never leave you again. If I go, you'll go with me or I won't go" (Singin' and Swingin' 232). She takes Guy with her to Hawaii, where she has a singing engagement. Singin' and Swingin' closes in a sentence which highlights, through its three nouns, the underlying tensions of the book: "Although I was not a great singer I was his mother, and he was my wonderful, dependently independent son" (242, emphasis added). Dialectical in phrasing, this statement not only functions to close the first three books but also opens itself to the mother-son patterns of the future volumes: fluctuations between dependence and independence.
In TheHeartofaWoman the tension between mothering and working continues, but to a lesser extent. Guy is now living with his mother and not with Vivian Baxter. But Angelou, despite her earlier vow, does occasionally leave her son. During a night club engagement in Chicago, Angelou trusts Guy to the care of her friend John Killens. One night Killens phones from Brooklyn and informs her that "there's been some trouble" (75). In a moment of panic that recalls her fears at the Paris train station (Gather Together 151-52), Angelou again imagines that Guy has been injured, stolen, "struck by an errant bus, hit by a car out of control" (75).7
Angelou confronts these fears in the Brooklyn adventure, the most dramatic episode of The Heart of a Woman. Unlike the internal conflicts of Gather Together, this one operates outside of the narrator, showing Maya Angelou as a strong, aggressive Black mother rather than a mother torn by self-doubt. While Angelou was in Chicago, Guy had gotten in trouble with a Brooklyn street gang. In order to protect her son, she confronts Jerry, the gang leader, and threatens to shoot his entire family if Guy is harmed. Jerry's response is an ironic comment on the motherhood theme of the autobiographies: "O.K., I understand. But for a mother, I must say you're a mean motherfucker" (84). Powerful, protective of her son, Angelou has become in this episode a reincarnation of Momma Henderson.
Unfortunately, no mother or grandmother or guardian angel, no matter how strong, can keep children forever from danger. Near the end of The Heart of a Woman, Guy is seriously injured in a car accident. In a condensed, tormented autobiographical passage, Angelou gazes at the face of her unconscious son and summarizes their life together:
He was born to me when I was seventeen. I had taken him away from my mother's house when he was two years old, and except for a year I spent in Europe without him, and a month when he was stolen by a deranged woman, we had spent our lives together. My grown life lay stretched before me, stiff as a pine board, in a strange country, blood caked on his face and clotted on his clothes.
Guy gradually recovers, moving, during the process of physical healing, toward a position of greater independence from his mother.
But Angelou, too, moves towards a separateness, much as she had predicted in Gather Together (163). In The Heart of a Woman the texture of Angelou's life changes significantly. She travels a lot, seeing far less of Vivian—although she does write to her mother from Ghana asking for financial help after Guy's accident (268). She strengthens her public identity, becoming a coordinator in the Civil Rights Movement and a professionally recognized dancer and actress. She also, for the first time in the autobiographies, begins her account of self as writer. Angelou attends a writer's workshop; publishes a short story; becomes friends with John Killens, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, and other Black novelists. Most important, writing forces her into a conscious maturity: "If I wanted to write, I had to be willing to develop a kind of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance" (41). By extension, the rich ambivalence of Singin' and Swingin' could only have been achieved by a writer who had abandoned "ignorance" for a conscious self-exploration.
Paradoxically, the independent writer/mother establishes this "kind of concentration" in maternal solitude. Singin' and Swingin' had ended with mother and son reunited, both dependent and independent. The Heart of a Woman ends in separation. Guy, now a student at the University of Ghana, is moving to a dormitory. In the last two paragraphs we find Angelou alone:
I closed the door and held my breath. Waiting for the wave of emotion to surge over me, knock me down, take my breath away. Nothing happened. I didn't feel bereft or desolate. I didn't feel lonely or abandoned.
I sat down, still waiting. The first thought that came to me, perfectly formed and promising, was "At last, I'll be able to eat the whole breast of a roast chicken by myself."
Angelou's reaction to having "closed the door" on her son is, like so many of her feelings in this complicated relationship, ambivalent. The language of the passage is initially charged with negativity: "Nothing happened. I didn't feel.… I didn't feel.…"Thesonshehad loved through all of "our lives together" (263) is gone. Angelou sits waiting for something dreadful to happen to herself—as she had earlier imagined Guy's being stolen or being hit by a bus. But the narrator counters this negative attitude with a note of irony in which she reverses the biological assumption of the mother as she-who-nourishes: She can now have the "whole breast" to herself.
The family chicken dinner is a recurring motif in the autobiographical series. Recall the marvelous scene from Caged Bird in which Maya and Bailey watch Reverend Howard Thomas gobble down Momma Henderson's chicken dinner: "He ate the biggest, brownest and best parts of the chicken at every Sunday meal" (28). Now there is no competition. Angelou has the best part, the breast, to herself. On the negative side, Angelou is left, at the end of the fourth volume, in isolation; the last word of TheHeartofaWoman is "my-self." But the negativity is outweighed by the more "promising" aspects of being alone, the word promising an echo of the resolutions of Gather Together and Singin' and Swingin', which end in vows of innocence and of commitment. The "perfectly formed" thought at the end of The Heart of a Woman is Angelou's realization of a new "myself," of a woman no longer primarily defined as granddaughter or daughter or mother—a woman free to choose herself.
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes opens by going back in time to Angelou the mother, who anxiously waits at the hospital following Guy's car accident. In an image that parodies the well-fed mother of The Heart of a Woman, Angelou compares her anxiety over Guy to being eaten up:
July and August of 1962 stretched out like fat men yawning after a sumptuous dinner. They had every right to gloat, for they had eaten me up. Gobbled me down. Consumed my spirit, not in a wild rush, but slowly, with the obscene patience of certain victors. I became a shadow walking in the white hot streets, and a dark spectre in the hospital.
The months of helplessly waiting for Guy to heal are like fat, stuffed men, a description that evokes memories of Reverend Thomas, who ate Momma Henderson's chicken, and of Mr. Freeman, who ate in Vivian Baxter's kitchen and raped her daughter. Guy's accident has an effect similar to the rape; Angelou retreats into silence. She is a "shadow," a "dark spectre," a Black mother silenced by the fear of her son's possible death.
Guy does recover. Their relationship, which like the autobiographical form itself is constantly in flux, moves once again from dependence to independence, climaxing in a scene in which Angelou learns that her son is having an affair with an American woman a year older than herself. Angelou at first threatens to strike him, but Guy merely pats her head and says: "Yes, little mother. I'm sure you will" (149). Shortly afterwards Angelou travels to Germany to perform in Genet's The Blacks. Guy meets her return flight and takes her home to a dinner of fried chicken he has cooked for her. Then, asserting his independence, he announces that he has "plans for dinner" (186).
Reading between the texts, we see Angelou alone again before a plate of chicken, as she was at the conclusion of The Heart of a Woman. In the Traveling Shoes episode, however, the conflicting feelings of love and resentment are more directly stated:
He's gone. My lovely little boy is gone and will never return. That big confident strange man has done away with my little boy, and he has the gall to say he loves me. How can he love me? He doesn't know me, and I sure as hell don't know him.
In this passage Angelou authentically faces and records the confusions of seeing one's child achieve selfhood, universalizing the pain a mother experiences when her "boy" is transformed into a "big confident strange man" who refuses to be his mother's "beautiful appendage" (Gather Together 162).
Yet through much of the fifth volume, Angelou continues to separate herself from Guy and to form new relationships. She shares experiences with other women, including her two roommates; she befriends an African boy named Koko; she enjoys her contacts with the colony of Black American writers and artists living in Ghana; and she continues her sexual involvements with men. The love affair which seems most vital in Traveling Shoes, however, is with Africa herself. In her travels through West Africa Angelou discovers certain connections between her own traditions and those of her African ancestors. She takes great satisfaction in her heritage when she is mistaken for a Bambara woman. Among African women she discovers strong mother figures, most notably Patience Aduah, whose custom of giving away food by the campfire evokes memories of Momma Henderson's having shared her table with Black American travelers denied rooms in hotels or seats in restaurants during the era of segregation in much of America (Traveling Shoes 102). Through her identification with Africa, Angelou reaffirms the meaning of motherhood.9
Although captivated by the oral traditions of Mother Africa, Angelou chooses to leave, at the conclusion of Traveling Shoes, in order to return to the rhythms of Southern Black churches, the rhythms of her grandmother. In so doing, however, she must also leave her son. The final scene in the book is at the Accra airport. Angelou is saying farewell to her friends and, most specifically, to Guy, who "stood, looking like a young lord of summer, straight, sure among his Ghanaian companions" (208). Through this suggestion of Guy as an African prince, Angelou roots him in the culture of West Africa.
If we look at the closure of Traveling Shoes on a literal level, then Angelou's son is a college student, staying on to complete his degree. But if we accept a grander interpretation, Guy has become, through his interaction with the Ghanaians, a "young lord" of Africa, given back to the Mother Continent freely, not lost, like so many other children, in mid-passage or in slavery. Angelou lovingly accepts the separation, knowing that "someone like me and certainly related to me" will be forming new bonds between himself and Mother Africa (209). Guy is making an essentially free choice that centuries of Black creativity in America have helped make possible: "Through the centuries of despair and dislocation we had been creative, because we faced down death by daring to hope" (208).
As in the four earlier autobiographies, this one closes with the mother-son configuration. But in the final, puzzling line of Traveling Shoes Angelou swings the focus away from Guy and towards the edge of the canvas: "I could nearly hear the old ones chuckling" (209). In this spiritual call to her ancestors Angelou imaginatively connects herself to the Ketans and the Ghanaians, to the people placed in chains, to all of God's children who had "never completely left Africa" (209). Ironically, the narrator herself has not completely left Africa either. The rhythmic prose that concludes the fifth volume is an anticipated departure to a new world, with the narrator still at the airport. As in the other volumes, the closure is thus another opening into the next narrative journey.
- I use the name Maya in discussing the protagonist either as child or as the young woman of Gather Together. When I refer to the mature woman or to the narrator, I use Angelou or Maya Angelou.
- In Fielder Cook's 1978 Learning Corporation of America teleplay of Caged Bird, the slap occurs following Annie Henderson's confrontation with the "powhitetrash" girls. Maya, played by Constance Good, says: "I would tell them to go to Hell. I would spit on their faces." Momma, played by Esther Rolle, soundly slaps Maya. The corrective slap is of course not unique in Black drama; the same actress, Esther Rolle, slaps her daughter for blaspheming in the 1988 production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun directed by Harold Scott at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore.
- I wish to thank Nellie McKay and Julia Lupton, respectively, for pointing out to me the echoes of James Weldon Johnson and William Shakespeare in this passage. In Johnson's "Go Down Death—A Funeral Sermon," Jesus "smoothed the furrows" from Sister Caroline's face while angels sing to her. Angelou incorporates these images into her own funeral sermon. Angelou's comparison of death to "that undiscovered country" is a direct allusion to Hamlet (3.1.79-80): "The undiscover'd country from whose bourn / No traveller returns." These references, then, are further articulations of the conflicts in language and culture which Angelou introduces in Caged Bird (11); to please their grandmother, Maya and Bailey would recite from Johnson's "The Creation" and not from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
- See Stephen Butterfield, who discusses Angelou's sense of humor in the church scenes of Caged Bird and compares it to humorous techniques used by Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson (209).
- According to Carol E. Neubauer, Angelou "identifies her own situation and the threat of displacement as a common condition among black families in America and acknowledges the special responsibilities of the black mother" (124).
- Guy is the name Angelou's son chooses for himself (Singin' and Swingin' 237-38) instead of Clyde, the name he was given at birth.
- In her study of style and displacement in The Heart of a Woman, Carol E. Neubauer discusses the Killens phone call and other episodes as aspects of a "pattern of fantasy" through which Angelou reveals "the vulnerability she feels as a mother trying to protect her child from any form of danger" (128).
- The "strange country" of this passage recalls the "undiscovered country" of the elegy to Annie Henderson.
- Like David Diop, Léopold Senghor, and other contemporary African writers included in The African Assertion, Angelou adopts the image of Africa as mother, expressing this image through the African oral tradition rather than through her own written reflections. Thus Angelou has Ghanaian chief Nana Nketisia extol Mother Africa in "a rhythm reminiscent of preachers in Southern Black churches" (Traveling Shoes 112).
Angelou, Maya. All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. 1986. New York: Random House, 1987.
——. Gather Together in My Name. 1974. New York: Bantam, 1975.
——. The Heart of a Woman. 1981. New York: Bantam, 1982.
——. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 1970. New York: Bantam, 1971.
——. "My Grandson, Home at Last." Woman's Day Aug. 1986: 46-55.
——. Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas. 1976. New York: Bantam, 1977.
Arensberg, Liliane K. "Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." CLA Journal 20 (1976): 273-96.
Benson, Carol. "Out of the Cage and Still Singing." Writer's Digest Jan. 1975: 18-20.
Bloom, Lynn Z. "Maya Angelou." Dictionary of Literary Biography. 38. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 3-12.
Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1974.
Chrisman, Robert. "The Black Scholar Interviews Maya Angelou." Black Scholar Jan.-Feb. 1977: 44-52.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. "Maya Angelou and the Autobiographical Statement." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. 6-24.
Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie A. "The Metaphysics of Matrilinearism in Women's Autobiography: Studies of Mead's Blackberry Winter, Hellman's Pentimento, Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Kingston's The Woman Warrior." Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Estelle Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980. 180-205.
Hill-Lubin, Mildred A. "The Grandmother in African and African-American Literature: A Survivor of the Extended Family." Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Ed. Carole B. Davies and Anne A. Graves. Trenton: Africa World, 1986. 257-70.
Kent, George E. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Autobiographical Tradition." Kansas Quarterly 7.3 (1975): 72-78.
Neubauer, Carol E. "Displacement and Autobiographical Style in Maya Angelou's The Heart of a Woman." Black American Literature Forum 17 (1983): 123-29.
O'Neale, Sondra. "Reconstruction of the Composite Self: New Images of Black Women in Maya Angelou's Continuing Autobiography." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. 25-36.
Schultz, Elizabeth. "To Be Black and Blue: The Blues Genre in Black American Autobiography." Kansas Quarterly 7.3 (1975): 81-96.
Shelton, Austin J., ed. The African Assertion: A Critical Anthology of African Literature. Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1968.
Smith, Sidonie. "The Song of a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou's Quest after Self-Acceptance." Southern Humanities Review 7 (1973): 365-75.