Form and Content (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoesis the fifth of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical works. Her previous four self-portraits—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), and The Heart of a Woman (1981)—trace Angelou’s life from her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, to her work during the 1960’s as a civil rights worker in the United States and abroad. The fifth self-portrait is both a chronological and a thematic extension of Angelou’s previous books, as it describes her four-year stay in Ghana and her effort to understand herself.
While Angelou wears traveling shoes in all of her books, her 1986 memoir particularly attests why those shoes are necessary apparel for a woman in perpetual search of herself and of a home in which she hopes to find security and meaning. The dedication of the book and its opening epigraph suggest the work’s focus upon this search: Angelou dedicates her book to “all the fallen ones who were passionately and earnestly looking for a home.” She then uses a line from a famous spiritual to underscore the search for a home: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”
As the book opens, Angelou, at the age of thirty-three, has decided to pursue her quest for roots in Ghana, having recently worked in Cairo as a journalist. She embarks on her journey with excitement and anticipation, seeing it as still another adventure to add to her already adventuresome life of traveling away from and toward new people, experiences, and insights.
Joining other African Americans who have emigrated to Africa, Angelou characterizes the expatriates in four groups, all of whom came to Ghana with distinct sets of expectations. The first group of forty families came as teachers and farmers, people who wanted to become one with the land. The second group, sent by the U.S. government, came seeking the opportunity to demonstrate what they saw as their superiority to the Ghanaians. The third group, the smallest, came to create a business community in the city of Accra. The fourth group, of which Angelou counts herself a part, arrived with the hope of finding home, of finding acceptance and adoption by the people of Ghana. Describing themselves as “Revolutionist Returnees,” these people believed that Africa would welcome them and that eventually all African Americans would follow them and find security and solace among a soon-to-be-created family of black men and women.
Motivated by this search for utopia, Angelou begins her sojourn in Ghana by seeking employment, and she obtains a job at the University of Ghana as an administrative assistant. What appears to be a good beginning for her—gainful employment and the financial means to pursue her search for acceptance in her new homeland—becomes a disappointment. Her salary is far below that of the British employees, and the job carries with it no house, no tuition for her son Guy, and no moving allowance.
Deciding to upgrade her professional position, Angelou applies for a position with the...
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All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Maya Angelou is writing perhaps the longest series of autobiographical volumes in contemporary American letters. The serial autobiography has a distinguished history, and other black Americans have written their life histories in several parts. Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright are names that come immediately to mind. What is unique about Angelou, however, is the number of autobiographical works she has produced, bringing her into the company of women who have published multivolume memoirs or diaries—women such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh or Anaïs Nin.
The form that Angelou is creating is indeed akin to memoir, but it still has the crafted, worked quality of the true autobiography. She writes with a doubleness of point of view (the narrator’s perspective at the time of the event as well as at the time of telling) and uses the telling incident to underline overall theme, as the wise teller makes sense of her life. Journals or diaries cannot do this, being written to the moment, and a memoir cannot either, since it is chronological only, usually with little attention to theme or structure and much emphasis on famous persons. What Angelou is doing is more like fiction, with her own life as raw material.
In her first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), the metaphor of the cage unifies the work, beginning with the young girl who believes that she is in reality white with long blonde hair, caged in a dark skin and kinky hair, and continuing as she learns pride in being black and female from her strong grandmother and mother, both caged in a racist society. By the end, the cage is metamorphosed into Angelou’s protective arm over her newborn son; she is sixteen and unmarried.
In Gather Together in My Name (1974), the horror of drug use by loved ones is brought home in her worsening relationship with her brother and her own adventures as a single mother in the racist California of the early 1950’s. Subsequent volumes, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas (1976) and The Heart of a Woman (1981), treat more peregrinations of the intrepid traveler Angelou—a world tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess and her short-lived marriage to an exiled South African freedom fighter, residing in New York and then in Cairo. Always, however, she deals with the problem of being an outsider in her own society, and always she deals with the double jeopardy facing one who is black and female.
In All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Angelou describes her sojourn in Ghana, at a time when many black Americans were hungrily exploring their heritage, searching for “home” and the meaning of home. Visiting Accra to enroll her son Guy at the University of Ghana, she is forced to remain and must give up a new job in Liberia when he is seriously hurt in a car accident. Her adventures with the black American expatriate community, in the newly independent Ghana of Kwame Nkrumah, make stimulating reading. There are unforgettable portraits of such notables as W. E. B. Du Bois’ wife, Shirley, Malcolm X, writer Julian Mayfield, and various West African chiefs; there are even better vignettes of Angelou’s encounters with her hairdresser (who tells her fortune), her houseboy (whom she educates), and the media and journalism establishment of Ghana (which despite her wide experience wants to exploit her).
The expatriate black community in Accra is fascinating. Like such communities everywhere, it is united by its common national origin. These people would probably not be good friends if they were in the United States. Yet black Americans feel their foreignness in Africa, and they come together to talk about home and occasionally to indulge in soul food. A package of sausage to...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Though she is known for many things—writing poetry, acting, directing, dancing—Maya Angelou is probably most famous for her autobiographies, of which All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is the fifth. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), and The Heart of a Woman (1981) relate Angelou’s beginnings in Stamps, Arkansas, and depict her internal and external journeys leading to Ghana, the primary locale of All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. Collectively, these self-portraits portray, as the title of the fourth volume suggests, the heart of this woman; individually, each demonstrates the autobiographer’s effort to tell her story in a prose form that frequently is poetic and musical.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes begins with a sensitive description of Ghana: “The breezes of the West African night were intimate and shy, licking the hair, sweeping through cotton dresses with unseemly intimacy, then disappearing into the utter blackness.” This prose is made more dramatic by the structure of the book: Short sections of mostly description, lacking chapter titles or numbers, emerge as virtual vignettes of a country Angelou chooses as her own because, as she writes, she has been searching for a safe haven, a home: “We had come home, and if home was not what we had expected, never mind, our need for belonging allowed us to ignore the obvious and to create real places or even illusory places, befitting our imagination.” The book examines this quest for home, this imaginative creation of a place both on a map and not on a map, a real country and Angelou’s hoped-for and dreamed-of place.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes includes anecdotes about visitors to Ghana such as Malcolm X, the black American activist; about natives of Ghana such as Efua Sutherland, the head of Ghana’s National Theater; and about the country of Ghana, including its bureaucratic structures such as the University of Ghana, where Angelou worked as an administrative assistant. Most of all, it is the story of a search, which, like most journeys, involves both disillusionment and enlightenment.
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is the fifth in Maya Angelou’s multi-volume series of autobiographies that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). That first volume treated her girlhood in Arkansas; this one takes up her life as an adult with her grown-up son in Africa, where she seeks her African roots. A book about heritage, it is also about the competing demands on a woman who is mother, artist, lover, and expatriate.
After beginning with a brief explanation why she and her son, Guy, are in Africa—so that he might enroll at the University of Ghana at Accra—Angelou then describes her anxiety when he is seriously injured in an automobile accident. Although traumatic, this...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The title of The Heart of a Woman (1981), the autobiography that preceded this one and the fourth in the series, provides a clue to understanding All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. In many respects, this book continues the story of the multilayered heart of an African American woman. Angelou is a mother, anxious about her child’s maturing and growing away from her. She is a political émigré, intensely interested in the racial politics of her time. She is an artist, describing the ambivalence of performing before white Europeans and black African kings. She is an African American, yearning to feel a part of her motherland. One of a distinguished line of autobiographical writers that includes Harriet...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Part Five: Into Africa.” The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1986, 14. Situates Angelou’s autobiography within the American tradition of multiple-volume self-portraits. Notes that such writers as Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and Chester Himes have contributed to this kind of serial autobiography by writing about the ways in which spirit and courage can overcome oppression. In her memoirs, Angelou does likewise, and Baker notes that the very titles of her books suggest Angelou’s concern with the dreams of freedom and home.
Blundell, Janet Boyarin. Review of All God’s Children Need Traveling...
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