Saint Maya


A Song Flung Up to Heaven

by Maya Angelou

(Random House, 256 pp., $23.95)

Click here to purchase the book.

I.When I was in college in the early 1980s, the black folksinger

Odetta was invited to campus to perform. Clad in African garb and

accompanying herself on the guitar, she weaved together

songs and savory anecdotes garnished with ancient wisdom. She rocked

the house, the young and mostly white students delighted to be

sitting at the feet of a black Earth goddess "telling it like it

I thought I had a good time. But later my white roommate shocked me

by dismissing the whole thing. His problem with Odetta was her

smugness, her obvious expectation that her audience bow to her moral

superiority without question.

This threw me. I had a natural African American impulse to let this

worldly-wise middle-aged black woman's maternalism wash over me. And

as a post-civil rights African American, I assumed that it was a

white audience's job to follow suit. I had never heard anyone

question what was, in fact, a rather manipulative way of approaching

an audience. One part of me questioned whether my friend was a

"racist"; but I also knew that few white performers could have

away with the Odetta tone, and that since white eighteen-year-olds

could not have played any part in the oppression that Odetta had

encountered in her life, it was a bit of an act to require them to

accept her saintliness without question.

I suspect that my friend would feel the same way about Maya

series of autobiographies, now concluded with A Song Flung Up to

Heaven. Since the success of the first installment, I Know Why the

Caged Bird Sings, which appeared in 1969, Angelou has followed up

with no less than five memoirs. To dismiss as smug I Know Why the

Caged Bird Sings--which chronicles an awkward Southern black girl's

path to adulthood from poverty in Arkansas to working-class black

Francisco in the 1940s--would suggest a certain blindness to the

poignancy of being young, female, and black in America before the

of civil rights; but I will concede that in her subsequent volumes

Angelou strides through her narratives with a studied Odetta-like

nobility. Throughout these narratives, Angelou implicitly dares the

reader to question her private line to God and Truth.

I must confess also that I am not immune to the Angelou scriptures.

Sometimes the hauteur is nothing more dire than a kind of

black-mother wit. And Angelou's life has certainly been a full one:

from the hardscrabble Depression-era South to pimp, prostitute,

supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference,

journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization,

comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots. She knew King

and Malcolm, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. This last book ends

with Angelou penning the first line of I Know Why the Caged Bird

Sings, at the beginning of her career as a famous writer. I could

never hope to taste as much of life as she has; and if my lot were

rich as hers, I would more likely wind up in therapy than flattering

Bill Clinton with a poem at his inauguration.

The woman who stood at that wintry podium in Washington first

appears in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a little girl so

nervous at an Easter recitation in church that she flees the stage

and wets herself. Her parents have sent her and her intense little

James Baldwin stand-in of a brother to live with their maternal

grandmother in a small Arkansas town. Until her early teens she

in the close-knit but grim black quarter of Stamps, where her

rock-steady grandmother raises her while running the local store.

whites on the other side of town are a distant presence, ever

menacing with the threat of lynchings. Angelou's crippled uncle

quietly looms as a symbol of the meaning of being black in this time

and place, with grimy, contemptuous white kids occasionally

descending upon the store and treating him and the grandmother like

lower beings, making a mockery of their dignity.

Then her mother divorces her father and takes Angelou back to live

with her in St. Louis, where Angelou meets a near-white grandmother

with a German accent, marvels at urban amenities such as indoor

plumbing, and comes to worship her gorgeous, eternally savvy

of a mother. But soon her mother's boyfriend rapes her, after which

she all but refuses to speak, and she is banished to Stamps. She

remains essentially silent to all but her brother for years. But by

her late teens she rejoins her mother, who has moved to the Bay

Today what remains of the San Francisco neighborhood where they

settled is the seedy Western Addition district, steadily shrunken by

gentrification; but in the 1930s and 1940s it was a thriving center

of African American life, and Angelou paints a loving portrait of a

bygone type of black neighborhood.

Visiting her father, who now lives in Los Angeles with a new wife,

Angelou ends up being dragged along with him on a drunken junket to

Mexico, where she watches him cheat on his wife and then drives for

hours--her first time behind the wheel--back across the border with

him passed out in the backseat. Misled by some things that she has

read, she goes through a spell of wondering whether she, as a

small-breasted woman, is a hermaphrodite or a lesbian. Partly to

dispel any question on the matter, she solicits a local boy to

deflower her. This leaves her pregnant, and I Know Why the Caged

Sings ends with her going to sleep with her new son.

In the wake of Sounder, Roots, The Color Purple, Oprah Winfrey, and

the explosion of black autobiographies, Angelou's first memoir

register as freshly as it did in 1969. But back then first-person

narratives by black women were thin on the ground. Personal accounts

of racial discrimination were eagerly sought by whites seeking to

understand "those people," while blacks justly valued them as

cris de Coeur. It also did not hurt that the book's descriptions of

bodily functions and sex were frank for their time. And so the

reviewers and the readers of Angelou's book cherished it for its


But in the sequel, Gather Together in My Name, the honesty begins to

look more and more formulaic. Since these books are autobiography,

accept that the events that Angelou describes actually occurred. But

her adversities and adventures begin to seem increasingly in need of

explanation. She is seventeen, for example, when she carries her son

to term. The father was a virtual stranger who never appears again.

Was there no question of an abortion? This was a choice then, just

it is now. Angelou openly avows in Gather Together that she is not

religious, and she also says that she would never have considered

welfare. There are any number of reasons why a working-class

between the wars would choose to carry an unexpected pregnancy to

term, but there are just as many reasons why she would choose

otherwise, and Angelou never lets us into how her mind was working.

Questions of this kind become more urgent as Gather Together in My

Name proceeds. Angelou dines with a lesbian couple who make advances

on her and becomes disoriented from her first experience with

marijuana. As a desperate measure to distract her unwanted suitors,

she suggests an arrangement whereby she procures men for them to

sleep with for money. Never mind that this would not be anybody's

first idea for escaping a sexually awkward situation.

And Angelou actually spends months pimping for these women! This,

remember, was a staid eighteen-year-old with an infant son. Angelou

gives no indication that she was desperate for cash: she has been

supporting herself with a solid waitressing job. And she has an

avowed proclivity for reading the likes of Thomas Wolfe in her spare

time. Why, then, did she make this particular choice? Not long

afterward, she becomes involved with an older man who frequents the

restaurant at which she works. He claims that he needs a large sum

money to divorce his wife, and suggests that she work as a

in a brothel for Mexican wage-laborers to earn the money. And she

does! This prim, bookish, withdrawn little girl discussing "The Fall

of the House of Usher" with her brother heads for the whorehouse.

even has the money to pay a woman to take care of her son while she

is turning tricks. Again, why? And as soon as she starts working

there, the man for whom she is extending herself in this horrible,

sacrificial way suddenly becomes a glowering pimp who insists that

she call him "Daddy," employs the brothel's madam, and is revealed

have a pretty young wife whom he has no intention of leaving. And

she sticks with him for a good while. Why?

The people in these flamboyant tales--the narrator included--have a

pulp-novel incoherence. By the time one turns to the third

installment in Angelou's saga of herself, Singin' and Swingin' and

Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, one has given up the search for any

kind of motives or reasons. One night Angelou is at a white party

and, feeling out of place, gets drunk alone in the kitchen. Hours

later she comes back out into the living room and the only people

left are a white female cabaret singer and some male friends. One

thing leads to another, and, fascinated with Angelou's blackness and

poise, they wonder if she might be able to take the white woman's

place at the club. Angelou, having never sung in her life, ventures

to sing a calypso song in a put-on West Indian accent. They are

entranced and set her up with an audition for the owner of the

cabaret. She practices a bit over the next few days, and lo and

behold! She gets the gig and is a big hit--which marks the beginning

of the show-business career that takes up the rest of the book.

But any number of us oiled up with a few drinks could do a charming

party turn without winding up as the attraction at a tony supper

club. Josephine Baker did not become the toast of Paris by just

shaking her booty for some theater gypsies as a party wound down.

paid her dues in a touring chorus line, and gradually attracted

attention for making funny faces, and was rewarded with a

third-banana speaking part in the authors' next show, and got some

more attention, and so on. But all Angelou had to do, it appears,

get up and sing "Run Joe" for a few tipsy strangers and c'est a. We

can read between the lines that Angelou also danced well, because

before long she nabs a featured dancing spot in the production of

Porgy and Bess that toured to such acclaim in the 1950s. It is

exciting to read her account of this legendary production as it

toured Europe--until we begin to wonder just how Angelou got the

when, by her own admission, she screwed up her audition, and

of other talented people were lined up around the block outside.

Presumably it was her dancing; but nowhere have we been given an

indication of how she acquired the chops. Earlier she teams up with

man in a small-time jitterbugging and tap act. And how do you think

this happened? A man she meets waitressing says that he needs a

partner, and she falls into a split. Alas, she catches her foot in a

floor heater--but still he takes her on. I don't mean to be

but why? Of course, she acquits herself nicely in clubs all over the

city. Never mind that countless adolescent girls taking after-school

ballet classes can do a split and catch their foot on a table leg,

but they do not end up dancing for Michael Smuin.; "This preference
for decorative vocabulary lends the narrative a

certain posed and precious quality, a succession of pretty scenes

instead of life as it is lived by real people. This is not good in a

writer who prides herself on probity."

It's as if Frederick Douglass simply mentioned that "I had taught

myself to read and write, and hence wrote the book you are reading"

instead of providing the extraordinary account of his education: how

he studied letters on marked shipyard timbers, traded bread for

reading lessons with white boys, and closely studied Webster's

American Spelling Book. And the subsequent installments of the

Angelou story do not relieve the reader's confusion about it all.

Angelou next marries a white man who frequents a record shop where

she works (a job that she gets when the white proprietor sees her

coming in often and just singles her out as someone who looks like a

good hire). After a few years, the marriage ends because he decides

that he is "tired of being married." He is quickly gone and is

basically never mentioned again. But was that really it? Angelou

suggests that he was rather controlling, but this is a problem in

of her subsequent relationships as well. In an autobiography in

a black woman marries outside of her race in the 1950s, we need to

know more.

"I took my young son, Guy, and joined the beatnik brigade," Angelou

mentions out of nowhere at the start of The Heart of a Woman, book

four. She wore her hair "natural" and lived in a commune with

Why? This was not the typical choice of the working-class black

person in the 1950s. Who were the people she lived with? What led to

this choice? But Angelou only gives this passing phase a page or so.

In the last book, a white manager whom Angelou "knows around" gives

her open-ended financial support, asserting simply that she is the

most talented person he knows. But at the time Angelou was a

small-time nightclub singer with a minor theatrical resum, who had

yet to publish anything except one piece in an obscure Cuban journal

of Marxism. No one had even hinted at this point that she was a star

in the making in any arena. So the gentleman's generosity makes no

sense, like most everything else in this didactic tale.

There are other questions. Why did Angelou, with her frequently

passion for books and learning, not aspire to a college education?

I'm sure she had her reasons, but I find it difficult to glean them

from her presentation of herself. She gives hints of an

anti-establishment temper. After a spell living in abandoned cars in

a city dump with teenaged runaways (why?), she writes: "I knew I

very little, but I was certain that the things I had yet to learn

wouldn't be taught to me at George Washington High School." And

are occasional indications of a leeriness of "bourgeois blacks." Of

her father's second wife, she grouses: "When I met Delores she had

all the poses of the Black bourgeoisie without the material basis to

support the postures," and at another point she briefly notes that

"the small percentage of classmates who went on to college had

unbearably stuck up and boring." And yet this is someone who

remarks that her impression of Europe in her early twenties included

Dickens, Cockney accents, Maupassant, "beery burghers,"

Cartier-Bresson's photographs, and Open City. This is not the

cultural baggage of the typical working-class person, of any color

any era. One of the lesbians for whom she pimps says: "You speak

good English, you must have a diploma." Billie Holiday does not

hesitate to call her a "square."

Angelou even maintains a sense of herself as "not one of the boys":

in her relationship with a laconic meat-andpotatoes bail bondsman,

she sweetly notes that "he was Tom to his friends, but to establish

myself as a type different from the people he knew, I called him

Thomas." But why was Thomas, who was unlikely to have much to say

about Rossellini or those burghers, less "boring" for Angelou than

the middle-class black men who shared her Weltanschauung? Before the

1960s, bookish black women of Angelou's origins typically became

schoolteachers, which was one of the few dignified professions open

to black women at the time. A subset strove to get a college degree:

in the Bay Area, San Francisco City College beckoned, as it still

does, as a way to get a degree from a solid institution for a

fee. But instead Angelou drives cable cars, cooks, pimps, does

dancing, turns tricks, and sleeps in abandoned cars, all the while

poring over serious literature. Why?

The selective nature of Angelou's narrative style extends to her

depictions of the main characters. I should more properly term them

"people," as this is a memoir rather than a novel. But such is the

nature of Angelou's style that the reality of these characters is

often easy to forget.

Consider Angelou's son Guy. He is a cocoa-butter saint who does not

do a single bad thing in all six books. His mother love is so deep

that when Angelou gets back from a year's absence touring, he breaks

out into a rash and nearly goes mad out of fear that she might leave

again. Threatened in his mid-teens by a murderous gang over a girl,

he stands them down with nary a blink. Angelou is furious with a man

responsible for getting Guy's neck broken in a car accident, but

immobilized in a head cast for weeks, cannot even consider casting a

stone: "If I can see Richard and understand that he has been more

hurt than I, what about you?" As a college student, he soberly

intones: "Now, I am a man. Your life is your own, and mine belongs

me. I am not rejecting you, I'm just explaining that our

has changed." Only when he and Angelou are parted does she give us

oblique reports that Guy has become "difficult to control," but the

implication is only that he is a spirited young boy testing his

Consider also the mother "character." Vivian Baxter is one of my

favorites in the chronicle, with her scotch on the rocks in one hand

and her cigarette in the other, dressed to the teeth and staring

anything down. I started waiting for her re-appearances as I would

those of a favorite next-door-neighbor character in a sitcom. But a

sitcom type, a kind of Winona on Good Times, is all we get. After

Angelou leaves home in Gather Together in My Name, she has Vivian

walk on a couple of times, toss off some savory aphorisms stage

center, and exit. Yet this is the woman who gave Angelou away to her

grandmother for several years--and while married to her father, not

as a cash-strapped girl on her own. Just once, late in the series,

Angelou attributes this in passing to "immaturity." After the rape

episode, a few months of Angelou's sullen silence is too much for

Vivian to take, and she sends her back to Stamps. Were there not a

few "issues" here? Vivian, in all of her wisdom, also appears to

chosen one very weak man after another. But Angelou just gives us

outfits, pretty skin, scents, and her "I've got some talk for you."

In some instances, Angelou becomes simply a caricaturist; and this

extends to her use of language. Angelou is well aware that African

American speech comprises a continuum, with standard English on one

end and Black English on the other, summing this up in a fine


In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets

and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s's from plurals and

suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating

the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one

language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At

school, in a given situation, we might respond with "That's not

unusual." But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily

said "It be's like that sometimes."

Yet rarely in her six books does Angelou depict herself or any other

principal saying the likes of "It be's like that sometimes." More

often than not, she has her working-class black subjects speaking in

highly unlikely ways for the situations in which she depicts them.

Guy is the most extreme case. He always sounds like Andy Hardy: "Oh,

Mother, come now." Or: "I have not decided just what I want to do.

Whether I shall stay in Ghana and finish at the university, or go to

another country to finish my education." Or my favorite: "Gee, I'm

famished." Surely Guy commanded standard English; he and his mother

were word hounds and passed the time playing Scrabble. But the

fact is that a young black boy of working-class origins who talked

like this all the time would not have friends. Casual speech is used

between parents and children, but Guy always talks to his own mother

as if he were talking to a receptionist. The same is true with

Angelou's brother Bailey. He has an active social life among the

humble neighborhood folk, but in a moment of emotional crisis he is

suddenly Leslie Howard: "There is a tide and time in every man's

life," he declaims, "when he must push off from the wharf of safety

into the sea of chance." Is this really what this man bred in the

rural black South said as he packed his bags in a huff?

Angelou writes herself talking this way as well. A man proposes to

her when she is already engaged, and her response is: "I'm obliged

clear up the matter with Thomas." The contrast is especially telling

when Angelou talks this way while another black character dwells

casually in the vernacular. Billie Holiday says: "Chicken and rice

always good. But fry that sucker. Fry him till he's ready. I can't

stand no goddamn rare chicken." And Angelou replies: "Billie, I

claim to be a great singer, but I know how to mix groceries." Mix

groceries? Angelou seems to feel that it's all right to have minor

players speaking naturally, but that major personages must have

speech cleaned up.

Now, the norms of public use of language have indeed changed over

past thirty years. When Angelou came of age in the 1940s, vernacular

speech was limited to a narrower range in writing and speechmaking.

Education still included oratorical training (Angelou won an Elks

Club oratorical contest as a child), and Black English had yet to be

analyzed and celebrated as a legitimate variety of speech. Angelou

not the only black writer of pre-1960s vintage inclined to write

black characters "upward," out of a sense that Black English does

belong on the printed page beyond dialect poems and spiritual

But what is so troublesome in Angelou's memoirs is the linguistic

double standard: only the stars are written "upward," despite their

humble Southern roots.

The result is that the conversations do not ring true. A

down-to-earth black mentor says to Angelou: "O.K., old sweet

nappy-head thing. Come on and talk to Uncle Wilkie." Angelou

"I'm so unhappy. And I have done such harm to Clyde." But when

revealing despair to an intimate, the working-class black woman does

not typically speak like Claudette Colbert. Indeed, it was common in

movies of Colbert's time to have characters of lowly origin somehow

speaking plummy high English while their relatives and their

intimates spoke the language of the streets, and Angelou indicates

that she frequented such flicks. This lends the movies an air of

fantasy that impedes their communication with most moderns, and in

Angelou's books it has a similar distancing effect.

To be sure, one senses that Angelou actually was something of a

verbal outlier among her crowd. There is the lesbian's comment about

her "good English," and her impulse to call a man "Thomas" who was

known elsewhere as Tom. And this seems to be the verbal reflection

a general remove that she maintains between herself and others. With

her diction, she holds the reader, too, at arm's length. Her

narrative language is pleasantly lapidary, but it also tends to aim

even higher than the literary norm in word-choice and syntax. Here

a description of a high-speed car trip:

The drive to the airport was an adventure in motoring and a lesson

conversational dissembling.... Noticing that he was conducting a

he would swivel his head occasionally and give a moment's attention

to the road.

"Motoring," "dissembling," "conducting a car": this leaning toward

ten-dollar words is typical of all of Angelou's books, in which one

"telephones" rather than calls and "assists" instead of helps, in

which a living room is "commodious" instead of large. In Africa,

Angelou has people "telling of" things rather than talking about

them. This preference for decorative vocabulary lends the narrative

certain posed and precious quality, a succession of pretty scenes

instead of life as it is lived by real people. This is not good in a

writer who prides herself on probity.

And the tendency extends beyond mere word-choice into general issues

of presentation. In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, a man whom Angelou

a significant relationship with is never described as anything but

"The African." I was impressed with how seamlessly she managed to

craft page after page without anyone happening to address him

directly or refer to him by name. But if the man was so important to

her, then why does she withhold something as basic as his name? If

for some reason she wanted to maintain his privacy, why not a false

name for the book? Then the couple fall out so badly that she

her family and breaks with him for good--but she gives us only the

merest hint of what the fight was about.

All of this results in Angelou herself remaining a kind of cardboard

cutout, especially after the first volume. I have never read

autobiographical writing where I had such a hard time summoning a

sense of how the subject talks, or a sense of who the subject really

is.; "'Contrived Arrogance' is exactly what Angelou seeks to give
her reader's.... But contrived arrogance was once a useful and even
natural form of defense against bigotry."


But in the end these are not quite the right questions. For the

subject of Maya Angelou's memoirs is finally not herself at all. The

subject is African American life. Around the middle of the fourth

book I realized that what Angelou intends is to pose the variegated

life that she has led as a framework upon which to hang a

and a defense of black American people as a whole. And when regarded

in this way, as apologetic writing rather than as autobiographical

writing, the gaps and the tics in these books make sense, revealing

meaning and a value in Angelou's series beyond its brute

confectionary appeal.

When Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the late

the black writer in America tended to write under an imperative to

teach a lesson that is now old news for most of us: that African

American culture is a vibrant, resilient culture rather than an

unhealthy deviation from the American mainstream. Angelou was on the

front lines of this effort, a literary manifestation of the

imperative that reigned in the black scholarship of the period to

"combat the contentions of Negro inferiority," as John Hope Franklin

put it in 1963 in "The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar."

Thus Angelou's books are laced with salutary observations about what

she calls, as was common among blacks in the segregated era in which

she grew up, "my people": the music of black voices, obsessive

references (in the first two books especially) to how clean-scrubbed

black people are, dating rituals, and church traditions--this latter

pointing up her missionary impulse, in that Angelou avows that she

herself is not religious. This is all tangential to the customary

themes and materials of the chronicle of an individual life. But

Angelou is celebrating "her people" as much as herself.

And in this regard the stiff language reveals itself as an effort to

show that black people are capable of mastering and artfully using

standard English--a rebuke to the Amos 'n' Andy stereotype. Blacks

Angelou's generation came of age before the erosion throughout

America of the assumption that standard English was one's Sunday

best. In those days, scruffy speakers were carefully "cleaned up" in

the press; pop music was sung to lyrics as crafted as light verse.

Thus Guy's "Gee, I'm famished" instead of the more likely "Man, I'm


The didactic impulse also explains Angelou's stagy portrait of

Africa. Moving to Egypt with an African husband and relocating to

Ghana after the marriage dissolves, Angelou limns a utopian cartoon

where the sun is always shining; all men are ebony statues with

pearly white teeth; all women are elegant, grounded, and sensual;

human relations are deathlessly warm and supportive, decorated by

beautiful formulas of address and charming rituals of ceremonial

respect. Surely Angelou saw more than this; but she is on a

proselytizing mission, teaching her audience never to think that

Africa is a dark continent full of savages. This is why these

who are dignified individuals, "tell of" things rather than "talk

about" them.

This also explains the passages in which Angelou falls into playing

the victim as much as being the victim. She attends a speech by

Malcolm X in which he says that "any white American who says he's

your friend is either weak ... or he's an infiltrator." This is her

judgment: "Malcolm's words were harsh, but too close to the bitter

truth to argue." The realities of the period notwithstanding, surely

this is a bit of a pose: did Angelou really doubt the sincerity of

the white kids getting beaten up on the Freedom Rides? What about

various white people whom she thanks in the books' acknowledgments?

Disturbed by her first reading of Genet's The Blacks, in which

turn out to be as morally corrupt as whites when they attain power,

Angelou muses: "Black people could never be like whites. We were

different. More respectful, more merciful, more spiritual." She goes

on to defend this sentiment by lauding black cooks for not poisoning

their employers' food, by praising blacks as a whole for always

turning the other cheek. It was one thing to entertain hopes of

innocence shortly after the eclipse of colonialism in Africa in the

early 1960s; but Angelou wrote this passage, which comes from The

Heart of a Woman, in the late 1970s.

But Angelou was toiling in the service of a broader point, speaking

to the naked racism that she has known and insisting that she and

other blacks got past it. There are plenty of episodes of genuine

bigotry in these books. When she is performing in The Blacks, a

woman approaches her after a performance to extol how much the play

taught her about the black predicament, but the conversation goes

wrong and ends with the woman recoiling from Angelou's touch and

hissing: "You people!" It is in response to episodes such as this

that Angelou confirms her didactic impulse at the end of her new

book, the final book, describing her plans for I Know Why the Caged

Bird Sings:

I thought if I wrote a book, I would have to examine the quality in

the human spirit that continues to rise despite the slings and

of outrageous fortune.

Rise out of the physical pain and the psychological cruelties.

Rise from being victims of rape and abuse and abandonment to the

determination to be no victim of any kind.

Rise and be prepared to move on and ever on.

Enter, then, a passage such as this one:

We carried the badge of a barbarous history sewn to our dark skins

... those actions which appeared to be childish most often were

exhibitions of bravado, not unlike humming a jazz tune while walking

into a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. I drank the gin and ignored


Obviously both passages are meant to be lyrical, and lyricism often

submerges the specifics of reality in a larger truth. It is no

surprise, then, that Angelou's memoirs often veer into the

She is certainly alive to the dangerous seductions of the black

victim routine. Dressing down some whites for a perceived insult,

Angelou purrs: "There was a delicious silence. For the moment, I had

them and their uneasiness in the palm of my hand. The sense of power

was intoxicating." But shortly afterward she acknowledges that "the

old habits of withdrawing into righteous indignation or lashing out

furiously against insults were not applicable in this circumstance.

Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party. The historically

oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of

victimization." Holiness, sanctity: the words are revealing, as they

apply to the general tone of all her books.

Angelou's memoirs are really tracts, and this explains the

succinctness and the transparency of her prose, its striking and

jarring simplicity. These books sometimes seem written for children

rather than adults. They are all on the short side, and divided into

ever shorter chapters as the series progresses: the final

is more a succession of vignettes than a narrative at all. But this

format makes sense when we realize that Angelou is, in her way,

preaching to the masses. Malcolm X apparently sensed this as one of

Angelou's skills, taking her on as a deputy out of admiration for

talent for talking to the common man. We never quite glean this from

Angelou's presentation of her "character"--the Queen's English of "I

have done such harm to Clyde" seems unlikely to have struck a chord

on 125th Street--but the style of the memoirs is the tip-off.

Explaining in All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes why she

could not feel that Africa was her true home, she describes being

unable to shake a feeling of self-conscious displacement: "Here I

Maya Angelou, dancing in Africa." This unwittingly sums up the

reader's impression of all six books: Angelou striding through the

narrative as a kind of stand-in figure for the Black American in

Troubled Times. In a tough period in I Know Why the Caged Bird

she portrays her mental state this way: "I had written a juicy

melodrama in which I was to be the star. Pathetic, poignant,

isolated. I planned to drift out of the wings, a little girl

Hence she is less interested in portraying herself and her son as

individuals than in celebrating the general African American cult of

the mother. No wonder we can never "smell" Guy as a real boy; she is

offering only an archetype of the black American son. Similarly, the

self-involved diva Vivian Baxter would be in for quite a bit of

criticism in a memoir by a younger black woman in this era of

exquisite awareness of the psychological legacies of faulty

parenting; but Angelou's goal was to fashion Vivian into an

mother "character" for herself. And, as it happens, Odetta has a

walk-on. As we would predict, we learn nothing of what she was like

as a person or a performer. Instead Angelou has Odetta briefly

her with exactly the kind of self-satisfied aphoristic wisdom with

which she would irritate my roommate twenty-five years later.

Angelou's writings are the product of a worse and blissfully bygone

America. White readers who feel enlightened enough about race issues

to have wearied of being lectured about them may be put off by these

books today. And a black person likely would not, and really should

not, write a memoir in this style today. I must admit a guilty

that the last volume ends in the late 1960s. I suspect that

chocolate icons gliding through a vaudeville version of black

could speak only fitfully about our times, when Jesse Jackson (and

even Al Sharpton) has replaced Martin Luther King, and victim

politics has taken its place among the varieties of communal uplift,

and black success has gone from happenstance to norm, and most

African countries have slid into violent black-on-black despair.

During a fracas with white school administrators in The Heart of a

Woman, Angelou asks: "How could the two women understand a black

mother who had nothing to give her son except a contrived

"Contrived arrogance" is exactly what Angelou seeks to give her

readers. An outsider today might read this as the same kind of

superciliousness that my roommate sensed in Odetta. But contrived

arrogance was once a useful and even natural form of defense against

bigotry. Contrary to the insistence of a noisy fringe, it serves no

valuable purpose today, and in this, Angelou's books date

I don't quite see how readers can find art in these books, but it

must be said that she has helped to pave the way for contemporary

black writers who are able to enjoy the luxury of being merely

individuals, no longer representatives of the race, only themselves.

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