Angelou, Maya: Title Commentary

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The Heart of a Woman

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


SOURCE: Smith, Sidonie. "Black Womanhood." In Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography, pp. 121-36. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.

In the following essay, Smith analyzes the plot and characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, while also examining the themes of quests for self-acceptance, love, and identity in the book.

But put on your crown, my queen.

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul On Ice

Eldridge Cleaver concludes his spiritual journey when he is prepared to greet the black queen in the voice of the new "Eldridge," the black man who is secure in both his physical and intellectual masculinity. But the black woman has also to make her own spiritual journey, for the Amazon, as Cleaver labels her,

is in a peculiar position. Just as her man has been deprived of his manhood, so she has been deprived of her full womanhood. Society has decreed that the Ultrafeminine, the woman of the elite, is the goddess on the pedestal. The Amazon is the personification of the rejected domestic component, the woman on whom "dishpan hands" seems not out of character. The worship and respect which both the Omnipotent Administrator and the Supermasculine Menial lavish upon the image of the Ultrafeminine is a source of deep vexation to the Amazon. She envies the pampered, powderpuff existence of the Ultrafeminine and longs to incorporate these elements into her own life. Alienated from the feminine component of her nature, her reinforced domestic component is an awesome burden and shame of which she longs to be free.


The oppression of natural forces, of physical appearance and processes, foists a self-consciousness on all young girls who must grow from children into women. But in the black girl child's experience these natural forces are reinforced by the social forces of racial subordination and impotence. Being born black is itself a liability in a world ruled by white standards of beauty which imprison the black girl in a cage of ugliness at birth. "Caught in the crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power," the black and blue bruises of her soul multiply and compound as she flings herself against the bars of her cage.1


Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, like Wright's Black Boy, opens with a primal childhood scene that brings into focus the nature of the imprisoning environment from which the black girl child seeks to escape. The young, awkward Maya, dressed in a cut-down, faded purple, too-long taffeta gown, stands nervously before an Easter congregation in Stamps, Arkansas, reciting a poem, asking "What you looking at me for?" She cannot remember the next lines, and so this question imprints itself indelibly on the shame-filled silence. Finally, the minister's wife offers her the forgotten lines. She grabs them, spills them into the congregation and then stumbles out of the watching church, "a green persimmon caught between [her] legs." Unable to control the pressure of her physical response, she urinates, then laughs "from the knowledge that [she] wouldn't die from a busted head."

But the cathartic laughter never even begins to mute, much less transcend, the real pain that is this experience, the palpable pain that pulses through her long trip down the aisle of that singing church as urine flows down her grotesquely skinny, heavily dusted legs. "What you looking at me for?"—over and over until it becomes, "Is something wrong with me?" For this child, too much is wrong.

The whole way she looks is wrong, and she knows it. That is why they are all looking at her. Earlier, as she watches her grandmother make over the white woman's faded dress, she revels for one infinitely delicious moment in fantasies of stardom. In a beautiful dress, she would be transformed into a beautiful movie star: "I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world" (4). But between the taffeta insubstantiality of her ideal vision of herself and the raw (fleshy) edges of her substantiality stands the oneway mirror:

Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn't hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs.


Wrong dress. Wrong legs. Wrong hair. Wrong face. Wrong color. The child lives a "black ugly dream," a nightmare. But since this life is only a dream, the child knows she will awaken soon into a rightened, a whitened reality:

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about "my daddy must of been a Chinaman" (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs' tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a toobig Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number two pencil.


In a society attuned to white standards of physical beauty, the black girl child cries herself to sleep at night to the tune of her own inadequacy. At least she can gain temporary respite in the impossible dreams of whiteness. Here in the darkened nights of the imagination, that refuge from society and the mirror, blossoms an ideal self. Yet even the imagination is sometimes not so much a refuge as it is a prison in which the dreamer becomes even more inescapably possessed by the nightmare, since the very self he fantasizes conforms perfectly to society's prerequisites. The cage door jangles shut around the child's question: "What you looking at me for?"

This opening to Maya Angelou's autobiography recreates vividly the dynamics of the black girl child's imprisonment in American society. Grier and Cobbs summarize this predicament of the black woman in Black Rage:

If the society says that to be attractive is to be white, she finds herself unwittingly striving to be something she cannot possibly be; and if femininity is rooted in feeling oneself eminently lovable, then a society which views her as unattractive and repellent has also denied her this fundamental wellspring of femininity.2

Maya is a black ugly reality, not a whitened dream. And the attendant self-consciousness and diminished self-image throb through her bodily prison until the bladder can do nothing but explode in a parody of release. Such momentary freedom from the physical pressure of her displacement becomes a kind of metaphor for the freedom from the psychological pressure of her displacement after which she will quest.


After establishing the psychic environment out of which the black girl child must achieve maturity, against which she must struggle for self-hood, Angelou returns to the beginning of her quest. Two children, sent away to a strange place by estranging parents, cling to each other as they travel by train across the southwestern United States—and cling to their tag: "'To Whom It May Concern'—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson" (6). The autobiography of black America is haunted by these orphans, descendants of the orphaned slave narrators, who travel through life desperately in search of a home where they can escape the shadow of lonely displacement. Although Maya and Bailey are traveling toward the home of their grandmother, it is more significant that they are traveling away from the home of their parents. A child may internalize and translate such rejection into rejection of self; thus, the loss of home ultimately occasions the loss of self-worth. For this reason, the quest for a new home is tantamount to the quest for acceptance, for love, and for the resultant feeling of self-worth. Like that of any orphan's, such a quest is intensely solitary, making it all the more desperate, immediate, and demanding, and, making it, above all, an even more estranging process. So long as the "place" is conceived as a function of others' (society's) acceptance, it always recedes into the distance, moving with the horizon, as the "North" receded for the escaped slave and later for the free black American.

Stamps, Arkansas, does not offer a sense of place to Maya:

The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embraces a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly.


The aura of personal displacement is counterpointed by the ambience of displacement within the larger black community of Stamps, which is itself caged in the social reality of racial subordination and impotence. The cotton pickers must face an empty bag every morning, an empty will every night, knowing all along that they would end the season as they had begun it—with no money and no credit. This undercurrent of social displacement, this fragility of the sense of belonging, are evidenced in the intrusion of white reality. Poor white trash humiliate Momma as she stands erect before them singing a hymn. Uncle Willie hides deep in the potato barrel the night the sheriff warns them that white men ride after black, any black. The white apparition haunts the life of Stamps, Arkansas, always present though not always visible.

Against this apparition, the community shores itself up with a subdued hominess, a fundamental faith in a fundamental religion, and resignation. The warmth mitigates the need to resist, or, rather, the impossibility of resistance is sublimated in the bond of community. The people of Stamps, including Momma Henderson, adapt in the best way they know—"realistically": Momma "didn't cotton to the idea that white-folks could be talked to at all without risking one's life. And certainly they couldn't be spoken to insolently" (46). If the young girl stands before the church congregation asking, "What you looking at me for?" the whole black community might just as well be standing before the larger white community and asking that same question. High physical visibility means self-consciousness within the white community. To insure his own survival, the black tries not to be looked at, tries to become invisible. Such a necessary response breeds an overriding self-criticism and self-depreciation into the black experience. Maya Angelou's diminished self-image reflects at the same time that it is reinforced by the entire black community's diminished self-image.

Nevertheless, there is a containedness in this environment called Stamps, just as there was in the black community surrounding young Richard Wright, a containedness which in this case mitigates rather than intensifies the child's sense of displacement. Here is a safe way of life, certainly a hard way of life, but finally a known way of life. Maya, like Richard, does not really want to fit here, but the town shapes her to it. And although she is lonely and suffers from her feelings of ugliness and abandonment, the strength of Momma's arms contains some of that loneliness.

Then suddenly Stamps is left behind as Maya moves to another promise of place, to her mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and St. Louis. But even here there is displacement since St. Louis remains a foreign country to the child, with its strange sounds, its packaged foods, its modern conveniences:

In my mind I only stayed in St. Louis for a few weeks. As quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I sneaked away to Robin Hood's forest and the caves of Alley Oop where all reality was unreal and even that changed every day. I carried the same shield that I had used in Stamps: "I didn't come to stay."


For one moment only, the illusion of being in place overwhelms the child. For that moment Mr. Freeman, her mother's boyfriend, holds her pressed to him:

He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn't ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he'd never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last. But then he rolled over, leaving me in a wet place and stood up.


The orphan hopes, for that infinite moment, that she has been taken back home to her father; she feels loved, wanted, special, lovely. Ultimately Mr. Freeman's arms are not succor, but seduction: the second time he holds Maya to him it is to rape her. In short minutes, Maya becomes even more displaced: she becomes a child-woman. Moreover, she is doubly victimized by the experience. As a female child, she is subject to the physical superiority of the male. Then later, when she denies the first incident in court and Mr. Freeman is afterwards found dead, she connects his death with her lie and is psychologically victimized. Her only recourse is to stop talking: "Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they'd curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended. I had to stop talking" (85).

In total solitude, total self-condemnation, total silence, Maya retreats to Stamps, to gray barren nothingness:

The resignation of its inhabitants encouraged me to relax. They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life's inequities was a lesson for me. Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened.


Her psychological and emotional devastation find a mirror in Stamps' social devastation. Stamps returns Maya to the familiarity and security of a well-known cage. This imprisoning physical environment, like the prisons holding both Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, becomes a literal metaphor for her spiritual imprisonment. At the nadir of her quest for selfhood, she climbs readily back in, losing herself in her silent world, surrendering herself to her own ugliness and worthlessness: "The barrenness of Stamps was exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness" (86).


Maya lives in solitude for one year until the lovely Mrs. Flowers walks into her grandmother's store and comes to play the role for Maya that Beverly Axelrod plays for Cleaver. It is Mrs. Flowers who opens the door to the caged bird's silence with the key of loving acceptance. For the first time, Maya is accepted as an individual rather than as a relation to someone else. Her identity is self-generated rather than derivative: "I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson's grandchild or Bailey's sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson" (98). Such unqualified acceptance allows her to experience the incipient power of her own self-worth.

But while a consciousness of her own self-worth germinates inside her, outside, in the life that revolves around her, hovers the stagnant air of impotence and frustration. And precisely because she has always remained an outsider to the way of life in Stamps and precisely because she is beginning to feel the power of her own self-hood, Maya gradually becomes conscious of such powerlessness. The older autobiographer recalls vividly specific moments illustrative of such powerlessness: the evening Bailey comes home later than usual and Maya watches her grandmother worry, "her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose"; the church meeting during which she comes to realize that her neighbors used religion as a way of "bask[ing] in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden." Even the Joe Louis fight, which sends a thrill of pride through a black community vicariously winning victory over a white man (the white community), becomes a grotesque counterpoint to the normal way of life. Then at the graduation ceremony, during the exciting expectations of the young graduates and their families and friends are exploded casually by the words of an oblivious and insensitive white speaker, who praises the youths for being promising athletes and indirectly reminds them all that they are destined to be "maids and farmers, handymen and washer-women," the young girl comes to understand fully the desperation of impotence: "It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead" (176). Finally, when Maya and her grandmother make an humiliating attempt to see a white dentist who refuses them, informing them cursorily that he would "rather stick [his] hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's," the child finds compensation for her impotence the only way she can—by fantasizing that her grandmother has ordered the white dentist to leave town and that he actually obeys her.

One gesture, however, foreshadows Maya's eventual inability to sit quietly and is very much an expression of her growing acceptance of her own self-worth. For a short time, she works in the house of Mrs. Viola Cullinan, but for a short time only, for Mrs. Cullinan, with an easiness that comes from long tradition, assaults her ego by calling her Mary rather than Maya. This oversight, offered so casually, is a most devastating sign of the black girl's invisibility in white society. In failing to call her by her name, the symbol of her uniqueness, Mrs. Cullinan fails to respect her humanity. Maya understands this perfectly and rebels by breaking Mrs. Cullinan's most cherished dish. The black girl is assuming the consciousness of the rebel as the stance necessary for preserving her individuality and affirming her self-worth.

But now there is yet another move, to wartime San Francisco. Here in this big city everything seems out of place: "The air of collective displacement, the impermanence of life in wartime and the gauche personalities of the more recent arrivals tended to dissipate my own sense of not belonging. In San Francisco, for the first time, I perceived myself as part of something" (205). Maya had been on the move when she entered Stamps and thus could not settle into its rigid way of life. She chose to remain an outsider and, in so doing, chose not to allow her personality to become rigidified. The fluidity of her new environment, however, matches the fluidity of her physical, psychological, and intellectual life. She feels in place in an environment where everyone and everything seem out of place.

Even more significant than the total displacement of San Francisco is Maya's trip to Mexico with her father. The older autobiographer, in giving form to her past experience, discovers that this moment was a turning point in her quest after authentic selfhood. Maya accompanies her father to a small Mexican town where he proceeds to get obliviously drunk, leaving her with the responsibility of getting them back to Los Angeles by car, although she had never driven one. For the first time, Maya finds herself totally in control of her situation. Her new sense of power contrasts vividly with her former despair that as a Negro she has no control over her fate.

Then, when Maya and her father return home, an argument between Maya and her stepmother Dolores ensues: Dolores calls Maya's mother a whore; Maya slaps her; Dolores cuts her severely with a knife; Maya's father rushes Maya to a friend's house and leaves her. Because she fears a scene of violence if she returns to her mother, who would certainly discover the wounds, Maya runs away and finds a new home in a wrecked car in a junkyard. Here among a community of homeless youths, "the silt of war frenzy," she lives for a month and discovers warmth, acceptance, security, brotherhood.

These experiences provide Maya with a knowledge of self-mastery and a confirmation of self-worth. With the assumption of this power, she is ready to challenge the unwritten, restrictive social codes of San Francisco. Mrs. Cullinan's broken dish prefigures the struggle for her job on the streetcar as the first black money collector. Stamps' acquiescence is left far behind as Maya assumes control over her own social destiny and engages in the struggle with life's forces. She has broken through the rusted bars of her social cage.

But Maya must still break open the bars of her female sexuality. Although she now feels power over her social identity, she feels insecurity about her sexual identity. She remains the embarrassed child who stands before the Easter congregation asking, "What you looking at me for?" The bars of her physical being close in on her, threatening her peace of mind. The lack of femininity in her small-breasted, straight-lined, hairless physique and the heaviness of her voice become, in her imagination, symptomatic of latent lesbian tendencies. A gnawing self-consciousness plagues her. Even after her mother's amused knowledge disperses her fears, the mere fact of her attraction to a classmate's breasts undermines any confidence that reassurance had provided: it was only brief respite against her fears. The only remedy available to her seems to be a heterosexual liaison. But even making love with a casual male acquaintance fails to quell her suspicions; the whole affair is an unenjoyable experience.

Only her pregnancy provides a climactic reassurance that she is indeed a heterosexual woman: if she can become pregnant, she certainly cannot be a lesbian (a specious argument in terms of logic but a compelling one in terms of the emotions and psychology of a young girl). The birth of the baby brings Maya something totally her own. More important, it brings her to a recognition and acceptance of her full, instinctual womanhood. The child, father to the woman, opens the caged door and allows the fully developed woman to fly out. Now she feels the control of her sexual identity as well as her social identity. The girl child no longer need ask, embarrassed, "What you looking at me for?" No longer need she fantasize any other reality than her own. Like Cleaver, the black man, she has gained physical, intellectual, and spiritual self-mastery.

Maya Angelou's autobiography comes to a sense of an ending: the black American girl child has succeeded in freeing herself from the natural and social bars imprisoning her in the cage of her own diminished self-image by assuming control of her life and fully accepting her black womanhood. The displaced child has found a "place."

With the birth of her child, Maya is herself born into a mature engagement with the forces of life. In welcoming that struggle, she refuses to live a death of quiet acquiescence: "Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity" (231).


One way of dying to life's struggle is to suppress its inevitable pain by forgetting the past. Maya Angelou successfully banished the memories of past years to the unconscious where they lay dormant while she continued on to her years of dance and drama, of writing in Africa and in New York. She specifically alludes to this loss when in the acknowledgments she thanks her editor at Random House, "who gently prodded me back into the lost years." To the extent that these years were lost, a part of herself was lost. Once she accepted the challenge of recovering them, she accepted the challenge of rediscovering and thus reaffirming her own selfhood. Maya Angelou, like Richard Wright, comes to understand more fully who she is by remembering who she has been and how she came to be who she is. Unlike a large number of black autobiographers who have achieved a sense of freedom in the achievement of fame, Maya Angelou chooses not to focus on the traditional success story of her life but rather on the adolescence that shaped her and prepared her for those later achievements.

Moreover, she makes the journey back into her past in its own terms by immersing herself once again in the medium of her making. Stamps, Arkansas, imprinted its way of life on the child during her formative years: the lasting evidence of this imprint is the sound of it. Maya Angelou's vitality and genius as a writer lies in her acute sensitivity to the sound of the life around her, in her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its rhythms, its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary, and especially its process of image making. This ability is a product of several factors in her past experience. First of all, she entered Stamps as an outsider, which gave her a conscious ear for all that was said and done around her. She was not born into the life; she adopted it, and to do so most effectively involved learning and then adopting its language. Then, when her experience with Mr. Freeman sent her into a hibernation of silence, she read even more avidly than before and always continued to do so. Her desire to read was by and large a need to fantasize a more ideal existence, a more ideal self.

To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter worm-wood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done …" tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.


And also Mrs. Flowers, her surrogate mother, taught her certain "lessons of living," one of which had directly to do with Maya's sensitivity to the language of Stamps:

She said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.


The "collective wisdom of generations" is part of what shaped Maya Angelou's identity. That she chooses to recreate the past in its own sounds suggests that she accepts the past and recognizes its beauty and its ugliness, its strengths and its weaknesses. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, not only does the black girl child struggle successfully for the freedom of self-worth; the black self also returns to and accepts the past in the return to and full acceptance of its language, a symbolic construct of a way of life. The liabilities inherent in the way of life are transformed through the agency of art into a positive force.


  1. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p. 5. Further citations will appear in the text.
  2. William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage, p. 40.

The Heart of a Woman


SOURCE: Garner, Shirley Nelson. "Constructing the Mother: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Theorists and Women Autobiographers." In Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities, edited by Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy, pp. 86-93. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

In the following excerpt, Garner focuses on The Heart of a Woman as a work that places mothers in a social and cultural context.

Setting women autobiographers beside these therapists and theorists [D. W. Winnicott, Nancy Chodorow, and others], I think of several who deal with mothers: Maxine Hong Kingston, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, and Kim Chernin. Published between 1975 and 1983, The Woman Warrior,The Heart of a Woman, Zami, and In My Mother's House, like the more recent theoretical works I have been describing, show the influence of the Women's Movement in their focus on mothers or mothers and daughters, who tend to be less prominent in earlier autobiographies by women. Another feature these autobiographers have in common is that their mothers—and sometimes their fathers—are immigrants. This is not true, of course, of Maya Angelou's mother; coming from a poor, southern black family, however, she, like the immigrant mothers, is outside the dominant culture.

Though mother-daughter relationships are not so central in The Heart of a Woman or Zami, all of these stories attest to the power of the mother over her children. They are also stories about growing up and leaving home. For all of these writers, leaving home is both literal and metaphorical. In its metaphorical sense, it means separating from one's family, which tends to be only or mainly the mother. To the extent that psychoanalysis highlights the separation and individuation process, it provides a perspective on these texts. Each writer reveals her efforts to establish her difference from her mother, sometimes at a moment of painful confrontation; at the same time, we see each of them consciously or unconsciously incorporating or recognizing aspects of their mothers in themselves.

In most of these works, we see the mother, as we have so often seen her in psychoanalytic theory, through the eyes of her child. Though all of these writers had children when they wrote their autobiographies, only two of them—Kim Chernin and Maya Angelou—write about themselves as mothers. For Chernin, this is a secondary and often submerged theme. There are some obvious reasons for these writers to exclude this part of their lives. To the extent that they have chosen to write a "growing up" story, their reaching maturity seems not to have anything to do with having children. Growing up has more to do with their coming to terms with their families, particularly their mothers. Another apparent motive for Kingston, Chernin, and to some extent Lorde, is to give voice and meaning to their mother's stories, which none of their mothers could write. Quite wonderfully, Chernin's mother asks her daughter to write her story. Chernin's response recalls what the psychoanalysts tell us: "I am torn by contradiction. I love this woman. She was my first great aching love. All my life I have wanted to do whatever she asked of me, in spite of our quarreling." "I'm afraid. I fear, as any daughter would, losing myself back into the mother." (12) Of course, it is probably easier to write about your mother than your children in autobiography, because it is easier to assume—even if it is not true—that your mother is less vulnerable than your children to anything hurtful you might say.

But more significantly, I think, it is harder to see yourself as a parent than to see someone else as a parent, especially if she is your parent. Finally, literature has not provided us with enough stories written from the mother's point of view to encourage us to write from this perspective. The absence of these stories leaves us with the special burden of creating our own forms and language for telling them, as well as suggests that they are not interesting or not the proper subject of literature. Literature, psychoanalysis, and even life have conspired to keep us from knowing our own feelings as mothers, much less telling our own stories. It is perhaps here that Muriel Rukeyser's notion—that if one woman told the truth of her life, the world would split open—awakens some of our greatest fears.

All of these writers in some sense make their mothers' cases, even while coming to terms with their own ambivalences toward their mothers. They do not write in the vein of Nancy Friday's My Mother My Self, a mother-blaming book. While confronting their mothers and their difficulties with these mothers, they also want to put those difficulties in a context such that they are understandable, to delineate the hardships of their mothers' lives as they see them. They also want to affirm their mothers' strengths, to validate their mothers' lives in a way the world at large does not. They are often making clear why their mothers are not nurturing, even valuing the sides of them that are not nurturing, even though as children they were hurt or puzzled by their mothers' responses to them and their actions.

The most important way these stories suggest the limitations of psychoanalytic theory in their portrayal of mothers is the way they place them in a social and cultural context. I want to look at Maya Angelou's Heart of a Woman to illustrate my point because she is the one of these writers who has written mainly from the point of view of a mother. Her position as a daughter and her depiction of her own mother are only secondary.

Having already written autobiographies about her younger life, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974), and Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), Angelou is present in The HeartofaWoman when she is in her thirties and is the mother of a fourteen-year-old son, who in the course of the book turns seventeen.

To begin with, she is an unmarried mother, made pregnant by a shockingly deliberate and almost arbitrary encounter on her part, described in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 1 She depicts herself as having an "immaculate pregnancy" without a man around, and she is proud of her independence. There are men who are significant for Angelou in the course of The Heart of a Woman, particularly the charismatic African Vus Make, whom she marries without legal ceremony, follows to Egypt to foster their mutual political aims, and finally leaves. But in her family of origin and in the family she makes with her son, she does not count on fathers or men as mates in child-rearing. Her reference to her mother's husbands is casual and dismissive: "My mother had married a few times, but she loved her maiden name. Married or not, she often identified herself as Vivian Baxter" (25). Angelou merely alludes to her own first marriage (which was not to her child's father) to explain something else.

When Angelou describes her mother, she, like Chernin, attests to the strength of the bond between them: "She smiled and I saw again that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen" (25). In her depiction of her mother, she makes her larger than life and retains a certain romanticism and idealization, but also draws her vulnerable and with frailties. As nurturer writ large, she is admirably tough. When they meet in Fresno in 1959 to spend the night at the Desert Hotel, where desegregation is a legal requirement but only that, the drama is very powerful. As Angelou walks through the lobby to the bar to meet her mother, she describes the scene: "The crowd made an aisle and I walked through the silence, knowing that before I reached the lounge door, a knife could be slipped in my back or a rope lassoed around my neck" (24). Sensing Angelou's fear, her mother tells her:

Animals can sense fear. They feel it. Well, you know that human beings are animals, too. Never, never let a person know you're frightened. And a group of them … absolutely never. Fear brings out the worst thing in everybody. Now, in that lobby you were as scared as a rabbit. I knew it and all those white folks knew it. If I hadn't been there, they might have turned into a mob. But something about me told them, if they mess with either of us, they'd better start looking for some new asses, 'cause I'd blow away what their mammas gave them.


Laughing, according to Angelou, "like a young girl," the mother tells her daughter to open her purse, where half-hidden under her wallet lies a German luger.

Yet, when this gun-wielding woman bids good-bye to her daughter, she reveals her vulnerability as she says to Angelou, "I hate to see the back of someone I love" (29). Later we see Vivian Baxter struggling to shore up her own marriage to an alcoholic man and to cope with loneliness, calling upon Angelou to be "the shrewd authority, the judicious one, the mother" to her (210). Angelou's mother is always there for financial support in an emergency, someone from whom Angelou can gather strength. In a crisis, when Angelou goes to visit her mother, she tells us, "I needed to see my mother. I needed to be told just one more time that life was what you make it, and that every tub ought to sit on its own bottom. I had to hear her say, 'They spell my name W-O-M-A-N, 'cause the difference between a female and a woman is the difference between shit and shinola'" (210). At the same time, this romanticism is undercut by the stark, harsh memory that Angelou's mother deserted her when she was a child. She recounts being sent with her brother, unescorted, when he was four and she was three, with wrist tags for identification, from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, the home of her grandmother.

As the story surrounding Angelou and her mother suggests, a mother in the world of this book cannot simply negotiate the domestic realm. She must be of the world and in it. As the Fresno episode reveals, Angelou's mother is continually showing her how to survive in a racist society and also as a woman alone. As Angelou goes into a Brooklyn bar for the first time, she follows her mother's advice and example in ordering a large drink, offering her largest bill, and inviting the bartender to take out enough for a drink for himself. "Vivian Baxter told me when I was seventeen and on my own that a strange woman alone in a bar could always count on protection if she had treated the bartender right" (98).

When Guy, through no fault of his own, runs into difficulties with the Savages, a gang at school, Angelou follows her mother's example. Borrowing a gun from a friend, she confronts the head of the gang and his girlfriend at the home of his girlfriend: "If the Savages so much as touch my son, I will then find your house and kill everything that moves, including the rats and cockroaches." After she shows the gang leader the borrowed pistol, he recovers his voice to reply: "O.K., I understand. But for a mother, I must say you're a mean motherfucker" (83-84). Angelou suggests that she is probably up to doing what she needs to do to survive, as is her son. While one could say that this is an example of woman as mother in her caretaking and protective role, since her interests and her son's are, after all, the same, I do not think this kind of action is contemplated by psychoanalytic descriptions of mother-child relationships or the mother as nurturer.

But let me turn to Angelou's actions that are not in her son's behalf or which may be, but may not be felt by him to be. Because Angelou recognizes her and her mother's ambivalences about each other, she understands the complexities of Guy's feelings toward her as well as her own toward him. At the heart of their relationship are three significant factors: their positions as members of a black minority in a predominantly white culture; their economic status, which fluctuates but often is very low; and the fact that Angelou is a single parent. Both Guy and Angelou are sensitive about the extent to which they have had to move around. Angelou recounts: "I followed the jobs, and against the advice of a pompous school psychologist, I had taken Guy along. The psychologist had been white, obviously educated and with those assets I know he was also well to do. How could he know what a young Negro boy needed in a racist world?" (29). By the time Guy is fourteen, he has developed a cynical response to Angelou's announcements that they are going to move yet once again: "Again? Okay. I can pack in twenty minutes. I've timed myself" (29).

This moving continues throughout the autobiography and is a source of Guy's hostility and weary resignation and a cause of Angelou's considerable maternal guilt. Yet she faces their situation head on and doesn't dwell on the guilt:

My son expected warmth, food, housing, clothes and stability. He could be certain that no matter which way my fortune turned he would receive most of the things he desired. Stability, however, was not possible in my world; consequently it couldn't be possible in Guy's. Too often I had had to decline unplayable hands dealt to me by a capricious life, and take fresh cards just to remain in the game. My son could rely on my love, but never expect our lives to be unchanging.


Angelou is talking here in part about economic necessity, but she is also talking about making a life for herself rather than having merely an existence. As her life proceeds, we see her finding work that is meaningful to her and important apart from the necessary income it provides; and some of her choices and her moves have to do with taking advantage of good opportunities.

She outlines some of the particular anxieties she feels as a black and single mother:

The black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion. She questions whether she loves her children enough—or more terribly, does she love them too much? Do her looks cause embarrassment—or even more terrifying, is she so attractive her sons begin to desire her and her daughters begin to hate her. If she is unmarried, the challenges are increased. Her singleness indicates she has rejected, or has been rejected by her mates. Beyond her door, all authority is in the hands of people who do not look or think or act like her and her children. Teachers, doctors, sales clerks, librarians, policemen, welfare workers are white and exert control over her family's moods, conditions and personality; yet within the home, she must display a right to rule which at any moment, by a knock at the door, or a ring of the telephone can be exposed as false. In the faces of these contradictions, she must be a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged.


Apart from the circumstances Angelou cannot escape, she makes choices as a single woman that affect her relationship with her son. Because she chooses to fulfill her sexual desires rather than deny them, she brings men and even "fathers" into Guy's life, inevitably causing emotional tumult for both of them. When Angelou settles down with a man, partly because she imagines he will be a good father to Guy and a good role model, the experience, though interesting, is a disaster in emotional terms. An African who is involved in politics and works for black rights internationally, Vus is a caricature of a sexist male. Angelou finds herself in conflict: "I wanted to be a wife and to create a beautiful home to make my man happy, but there was more to life than being a diligent maid with a permanent pussy" (143).

Vus begins to have affairs, which he justifies as his "right," spends money he doesn't have, and brings collectors and disgrace to Angelou and her son. He exerts or tries to exert control over Angelou and prevent her from working, even when they can't pay their bills. Enraged when he learns that she has taken a job as associate editor of the Arab Observer, he rages at her, "You took a job without consulting me? Are you a man?" (226). For a time, Guy, coming into adulthood, turns away from Angelou and begins to follow Vus's cues; to see her, in her words, as a "kind and competent family retainer." He begins to incorporate Vus's machismo more surely than his politics. Thus the experiment of marriage and the family fails for Angelou and finally for Guy.

The last image that Angelou evokes of herself as mother may seem contradictory. After Guy is in a very serious car accident, he lies before her unconscious:

I looked at my son, my real life. He was born to me when I was seventeen. I had taken him away from my mother's house when he was two months 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.


When he recovers and leaves for college, she comments, "My reaction was in direct contrast with his excitement. I was going to be alone, also, for the first time. I was in my mother's house at his birth, and we had been together ever since. Sometimes we lived with others or they lived with us, but he had always been the powerful axle of my life" (271). Yet, when he walks out the door, she describes something different from what we have been led to expect:

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."


This move from sadness to contemplated pleasure strikes me not as contradiction or ambivalence. It rather suggests the balance and complexity of feeling that exists where love and life are full, as both are when presented in Angelou's story. Angelou clearly struggled with maternal guilt as her son was growing up.2 This feeling at times must have masked the kind of maternal rage that Adrienne Rich describes so powerfully in Of Woman Born. The close of the novel suggests further the way Angelou tends to sublimate that feeling in humor.

Angelou's image of herself as daughter and mother within a kind of matriarchal structure, an image that shows her chafing when she is brought within partriarchal bounds, simply falls outside Winnicott's system. While Chodorow's analysis of the relationships of mothers and daughters may not be entirely irrelevant, it is hard to squeeze this story into psychoanalytic theories. When Angelou and her mother have needed to or wanted to, they have been able to give up their roles as nurturers without disabling and overwhelming guilt or sadness. As for Chodorow's solution to what she views as an unfortunate entanglement of mothers and children, there are no men drawn in this story who are willing and capable participants as childrearers. The conflicts between autonomy and dependence that Dorothy Litwin describes seem for the most part a luxury in terms of this story. Autonomy is survival and is not something to be chosen or rejected. Susan Spieler's analysis is more to the point, for Angelou's portrait of herself and her mother subverts the categories of masculine and feminine. Because Angelou and her mother are heterosexual, the analysis in Lesbian Psychologies introduces issues that do not pertain to them. Yet the attention to class, race, and difference that those essays incorporate may alert us to the perspective we must bring to reading the mother in this autobiography.

To understand the roles, feelings, conflicts, and possibilities of mothers, we must turn to the fiction and autobiography of women writers, and to women's individual essays, and to collections of their writing. Psychoanalysts must learn to listen to mothers as well as to children and recollections of childhood. They must consider the limits of psychoanalytic understanding of class and race and reach for a broader perspective. They must sharpen the analysis of gender issues that some psychoanalysts have begun to elaborate. At this time, stories of mothers may enrich psychoanalytic theories more than these theories may aid us in interpreting mother's stories.


  1. Quotations from The Heart of a Woman, by Maya Angelou. Copyright 1981 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
  2. In "Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity," Mary Jane Lupton discusses Angelou's expression of maternal guilt in autobiographical works written before The Heart of a Woman.


SOURCE: Hagen, Lyman B. "The Autobiographies: The Heart of a Woman. "In Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, pp. 96-117. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

In the following essay, Hagen examines such themes within The Heart of a Woman as motherhood, responsibility, family, self-identity, and independence.

The title of Angelou's fourth autobiography, while less striking or oblique than titles of her preceding books, is taken from a poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson, a Harlem Renaissance writer. This poem is marvelously appropriate as it refers to a Caged Bird, thus providing linkage with Angelou's initial series volume. This addition to the ongoing story of Maya Angelou looks into the heart of the maturing woman and focuses on relationships. The relationships with her son, with men, with her racial responsibilities, and with her writing are the thrust of the narrative. These are the normal, everyday concerns, less venturesome and startling. Racial confrontations such as that of Angelou with white school authorities and that of the renowned Billie Holiday versus a nondescript white woman fulfill elements of the black canon of autobiography and therefore discount any drift from the interest of her people. Thus The Heart of a Woman (1981) is truly a story of an African-American female. It does not depart much from the factual happenings except for dramatic effect. It is a far more sober assessment of her wide ranging activities.

The Heart of a Woman does not disappoint the Angelou readers who are accustomed to crisp, poetic prose interspersed with "down home" homilies. It is another professionally written work, exhibiting increasing literary competence. The appellation "poetic temperament" holds as true here as in her other books. The prose is captivating; it maintains the richness and texture of her style. The metaphors are still striking: "Time wrapped itself around every word."1 Angelou continues to use scatology to capture individual speech practices. The essence of Billie Holiday cannot be captured without quoting her colorful, uncensored responses. Angelou is proud of Billie Holiday's friendship and would never demean it by scrubbing street-smart Billie's less than sanitary language. What you hear is what she is.

Angelou fictionalizes dialogue to re-create a sense of place and a sense of history. She incorporates fantasy to reveal her illusions and unfulfilled desires and to acknowledge her lack of control over the future. A degree of fatalism is woven throughout this and other Angelou works. There is a consistent acquiesence to fate. These rhetorical devices are commonly employed by autobiographers for realism and conviction, according to Carol E. Neubauer.2 Angelou does not stray far from traditional structure.

Critics responded favorably to the professional quality of The Heart of a Woman. Janet B. Blundell calls it "lively, revealing, and worth the reading"; however, she saw a weakness in that it is at times "too chatty and anecdotal."3 But this is the very crux of Angelou's narratives. They are generally a mosaic of episodes—anecdotes—linked by theme and character. Sheree Crute seems to appreciate this approach and says Angelou "makes the most of her wonderfully unaffected story telling skills."4Choice writes that "while (Angelou's) first book remains her best … every book since has been very much worth the reading and pondering."5Caged Bird gains much of its strength from an extensive use of folklore, a significant omission in The Heart of a Woman. However, this and other books since Caged Bird are less general in scope. The reviews of all Angelou's books are marked by a uniformity of light praise but great admiration. No critic suggests that any of the works in the series is less than a delight to read. The courage of the author's revelations is always applauded.

The Heart of a Woman, as Singin' and Swingin', entails constant movement. Angelou is still seeking to find an appropriate home for herself and her son. This is made more difficult by her ongoing efforts to define herself. This is another volume covering a lot of geography and growth. Angelou moves from San Francisco to a Sausalito houseboat commune trying out the beatnik life style; thence to ultra conservative Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Lack of acceptance and racial attacks send her off to the Harlem Writers Guild in New York. She restlessly followed her fate to London to Egypt to Ghana, where the book ends. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Angelou inserts her rich descriptive passages about these places visited. These descriptions enhance the specific experiences recalled as well as the general credibility of the narrative and also show an appreciation of the diversity of the world. This reflects Angelou's growing familiarity with an enlarging sphere and her comfort within it.

The Heart of a Woman picks up Angelou's story after she has left the cast of the European traveling company of Porgy and Bess and returned from Hawaii to the night club circuit in America. The book begins at the precise end of its predecessor. Angelou is still the unmarried African-American female with a rapidly growing now adolescent son to support. She is principally concerned during the seven years covered by The Heart of a Woman with her relationship with her son—her love of him and her pride in his developing personality and character. Uppermost in her mind is his welfare and helping him cope as a black young man-child trying to mature in a generally unsympathetic white world. He has been taken care of on occasion by others, but Angelou continuously accepts motherhood and its attendant responsibility to monitor his development. This sense of duty incorporates a family relationship, and Angelou is concerned with establishing a complete family, which includes a father figure for Guy.

This quest for family brings Angelou to describe her encounters with a number of lovers and potential fathers. In the time-frame of the book, she reports on relationships with several men, the last of which is her ill-fated common law marriage to her second "husband," Vusumzi Make, a colorful African radical. This is the liaison that carried her to London, Egypt and Ghana. She eventually finds Make to be a less than desirable role model for Guy and a trying mate for herself. They part after a few years.

A large portion of the book concerns involvement with the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Here, she seizes the opportunity to express her pride in her race and in its struggle for equality and acceptance. Like Norman Mailer in his Armies in the Night, Angelou serves as an informed personal historian of the moral crisis of the period—racial injustice—that was of popular concern. She is an enthusiastic participant in the movement and not just an outside observer. Daisy Aldan's previously quoted concern regarding the book's "… hostility … toward all white people"6 is an outgrowth of the barrage of negative racial experiences Angelou relates. Every possible slur, slight, and affront is visited upon Angelou and her son solely because of their color. This emphasis also seems to be a justification of the motivations of the black activists who people the book. The more moderate views of Martin Luther King are reported too, and with great admiration. When Angelou chooses to work with an organized group, it is the Southern Leadership followers of Doctor King.

In the early books, Angelou's mother and grandmother command a considerable amount of attention. Grandmother Henderson has died and is now rarely mentioned, but Angelou still calls on her mother when she needs reinforcement. Vivian provides her with pragmatic advice in the form of proverbs derived from Mother Wit: "Ask for what you want and be prepared to pay for what you get" (HW [The Heart of a Woman] 29), a statement that encourages Angelou to be self-reliant and not to expect handouts. This and a lengthy Br'er Rabbit story are the few touches of folklore in The Heart of a Woman. This type of imbedded preachment covertly conveys its message.

Angelou accepts the demands of womanhood and is fiercely independent, but is grateful for her mother's support, be it financial or moral. This does not diminish her strength or independence, but rather increases them by knowing that there is a safety net in the person of Vivian Baxter. Angelou does take her son and move away from Vivian's immediate vigilance. Overcoming racial discrimination, she seeks greater independence and middle-class respectability in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.

Angelou's love of her son and involvement in his upbringing cause her to realize the special problems faced by African-American mothers when raising their children. Authority, she notes, is "in the hands of people who do not look or think like the (black mother) and her children. Teachers, doctors, sales clerks, librarians, policemen, welfare workers are white and exert control over her family's moods, conditions and personality" (HW 37). The African-American parent of that time is obliged to adhere to the existing and white societal coda. The red tape and restrictions may chafe as reported by Angelou, but they maintain order of sorts for all persons.

In spite of the problems articulated in The Heart of a Woman, Angelou succeeds in raising a son who turns out well. She does not fail him, and others in her position can thus hope for the same. One particular problem faced by single parent Angelou is that Guy has been hurt by the brief but frequent family separations. Having endured her own feelings of betrayal when passed to different relatives, Angelou knows she must compensate so Guy does not harbor resentment to her and turn to outsiders for guidance. She realizes how much Guy feels the need of a father. It was also painful for him to be a young man "who had lived with the certainty of white insolence and the unsureness of moving from school to school, coast to coast, and … made to find his way through another continent and new cultures" (HW 267). Therefore the determined search for family and father is so much a part of The Heart of a Woman that it cannot be isolated from the situational responses.

This search allows the introduction of a variety of male characters and allows Angelou to express normal sexual interests. This is an accepted topic of the culture of the time. Angelou reports on a series of lovers associated with her search for a suitable husband and father. Most fall short of her requirements. Angelou does try throughout the book to balance an honest appreciation of ordinary sexual adventures with the wholesome and desirable goal of stability. This is another message of hope for those young women disturbed by their sexuality and unable to come to terms with desires and expectations.

Angelou writes in this book much more graphically about her own sexual activities than in any of the preceding volumes. She is at an age and stage where this is natural and acceptable. One may tend to wonder how much of this detailed interest is real or romanticized. Her admission of shouting in the bedroom and such personal pleasure seems to be atypical material. In previous books, Angelou appears to contradict any extreme preoccupation with base pleasures. For example, in Gather Together in My Name, she imagines that the ideal husband made desultory love a few times and never asked for more and this was acceptable. In another instance, she said physical sex only once a month was satisfactory. Her stance was quite Victorian. This expectation may be closer to her real feelings than her "liberated" statements. Each of the contradictory positions may, however, merely reflect thinking of a particular time or circumstance. At the time of her writing The Heart of a Woman, more liberal and open talk of human interactions was developing. African-American female writers were not only taking pride in their race but also in themselves as women.7 The "liberated" modern woman was free to proclaim that she too had sexual urges. Sometimes women seemed inclined to outdo each other for sheer shock value. Frank talk about sex seemed to be almost requisite for a commercially successful book of that era. Despite relating various affairs, Angelou always advocates monogamy and stresses fidelity in relationships. She honors commitment.

Angelou and Guy move from Los Angeles to New York. It was here that she met many of the men she discusses. Several friends had encouraged Angelou to pursue a writing career. She was accepted by the Harlem Writers Guild which was composed of black writers both neophyte and established. Angelou's work was roundly criticized, but the tough lessons provided needed direction. Her night club background supplied a living. Being in the cauldron of New York allows much of The Heart of a Woman to be devoted to the major and minor players of the Civil Rights movement and political activism of that period. Angelou's role as personal historian covers both the Civil Rights movement and the black literary movement. She meets and writes about such national figures as Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and other prominent African Americans caught up in the push for equal treatment for their race. The inclusion of these prominent familiar figures allows for their lessons and messages to be passed along unobtrusively. When Angelou is a coordinator of the SCLC, she is totally involved in the cause. She is an excellent organizer and coordinates volunteer efforts, raises funds, keeps the office running, and attends innumerable functions with groups of various names. All this is for the purpose of furthering the advancement and recognition of black people throughout the world. She has been faulted by some for not being sufficiently involved in the "cause." This is not true; she just chose to be less strident. Her efforts were eminently successful, and her contributions to civil rights causes were effective. Together with Godfrey Cambridge she wrote and directed a well-received musical revue, Cabaret for Freedom, which was intended to raise funds and consciousness.

Angelou's sure ear allows her to re-create fictionally scenes of encounters with people with an uncanny touch of reality. She mimics dialogues with notable personages with ease. According to several informed friends, her descriptions of exchanges with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X capture the very essence of the responses they would give, although they are not quoted directly. Angelou is attuned to the intent of a message as well as its delivery.

Many Civil Rights advocates were not shy about acknowledging their African heritage. It is quite natural for them to mingle with and offer their support to Cuban and African Freedom Fighters. These foreign activists solicited assistance and appeared at many related functions. It is therefore not surprising that Maya Angelou aligns herself emotionally as a helpmate to one of these, Vusumzi Make, and fantasizes that together they can free all of Africa from white oppression. This is an unusual lapse from reality for Angelou. She is quite taken with Make and he steps into the role of the strong male she has been seeking. He relates well with Guy, relieving Angelou of sole concern. This largely influences her acceptance of him.

Throughout The Heart of a Woman, Angelou continues her indictment of the white power structure and her protests against racial injustice. She again re-creates scenes wherein the dialogue allows comment about shoddy white behavior. She sometimes utilizes flashbacks to youthful indignities endured and sometimes she relates experiences of friends and colleagues. The sketch of a scene involving Mother Vivian at the Desert Hotel in Fresno, California, is a classic. Vivian's every move and word is calculated to instruct Maya and deflate the ignorant whites they encounter. Vivian Baxter displays the ultimate in panache and carries off a put-down of her antagonists with dignity and distinction. Public negative treatment of African-American people validates their sometimes radical responses. The references to earlier affronts and reactions serve to provide continuity to the series.

Not all attitudes expressed regarding whites are negative. Angelou learns from Martin Luther King that he feels that there are many "white people who love right" (HW 94). Dr. King was optimistic. He had travelled to and from jails across the south and marched and preached throughout the United States, frequently with whites at his side or in his audience. He felt both white and black people were changing. Angelou herself was surprised by the white volunteers at the SCLC New York office. Although Angelou harbored a suspicion of white liberals, she was impressed by the honesty of actress Shelley Winters who ardently wanted only a peaceful future for her daughter in a mixed society. This idealism was somewhat misplaced; inequality and turmoil are extant today.

In relating experiences with whites, Angelou never offers solutions to the problems exposed. She simply reports, reacts, or dramatizes events. The closest she comes to an analysis or solution for racial problems is the time when she repeats Vivian Baxter's statement that "Black folks can't change because white folks won't change" (HW 29). Nevertheless the times were exciting and hopes ran high for progress toward equality.

Angelou's continuing role as a literary historian for the time of the book provides an opportunity to report on some African-American literature that is being published, despite her observation that it is difficult to get black literature accepted and printed. This is a somewhat inaccurate assessment, as many African-American writers were beginning to be published and publicized. Actually it was a time when book sales were in decline and all writers were encountering difficulties. There was a vast amount of publishable material and competition was keen. Talent, like seeping water, found someplace to go, and various movements enjoyed the efforts of the best and the brightest.

Vusumzi Make is called to London to present his cause and Angelou decides she will accompany him. She is committed to freedom for Africa and mixes with black women from many nations. The women did not actively participate in the conference but many exchanged ideas and objectives for their nation-states and people.

Make tells Angelou to find a New York apartment for himself, herself, and Guy. A family of sorts is born. They live well as befits a country's representative. Angelou keeps up her Harlem Writers Guild contacts and takes a leading role in Genet's The Blacks. Disturbing phone calls and events intrude upon the solidarity of the marriage, but Angelou was pleased with Guy's progress. This outweighed all other things. They are suddenly evicted from their New York apartment. Angelou and Guy make a quick visit to Vivian in San Francisco while Make arranges to pack them off to Cairo.

For a time, the excitement of the exotic and the foreign mask the realities for Angelou. She soon finds, however, that Make is not faithful or truthful or capable of supporting them.

Initially in Cairo, Angelou is exposed to an increasingly sumptuous life style. But again, reality imposes, and mounting debts become burdensome. Work, to Angelou, becomes a necessity. A meeting with the president of a news service leads to employment for Angelou as an assistant editor for a new magazine, the Arab Observer. She avidly pursues knowledge of her new career and accepts her disillusionment with Make. Angelou took on additional work writing commentary for Radio Egypt. An inevitable breakup with Make left her heading to Ghana to enroll Guy in the university in Accra. She shakes off another betrayal by a man and is prepared to accept a job offer in Liberia and to loosen the ties with Guy and let each move along independently. Fate, in the form of an auto accident, intervened. Guy was seriously injured while with friends. Angelou was needed at his side and for a long recuperative period. Friends managed to get her a job at the University as an administrative assistant. She tends to Guy until he once again can function on his own. He moves into a university dormitory to finally begin his independent life. Angelou stays near to quietly launch this venture toward full manhood for her son. She is, however, contemplating following her own single personhood.

The Heart of a Woman follows Angelou's established pattern of ending on a strong note of hope. Angelou and her son Guy have advanced to the point where each of them can move toward divergent, independent paths. Angelou can relish a sense of achievement as Guy looks forward eagerly to his future. She can anticipate a future for herself centered on herself. Again closure brings the cycle to a place that portends a new life for both Guy and Maya, a re-birth: a closing door and an opening door. Both characters are now citizens of a large world. Faithful to the ongoing themes of survival, sense of self, and continuing education, The Heart of a Woman moves its central figures to a point of full personhood. Its light humor and bantering carries a message of achievement.


  1. Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 9. Hereafter cited in the text as HW.
  2. Carol E. Neubauer, "Displacement and Autobiographical Style in Maya Angelou's The Heart of a Woman," Black American Literature Forum 17 (1983): 123-129.
  3. Janet B. Blundell, Library Journal 106, October 1981, 1919.
  4. Sheree Crute, MS 10, July 1981, 27.
  5. Choice 19, January 1982, 621.
  6. Daisy Aldan, World Literature Today 56, 4 (Autumn, 1982): 697.
  7. Estelle C. Jelinek, The Tradition of Women's Autobiography (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986), 149.

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