In Gather Together in My Name, Angelou appears to be aimless, drifting through the late teenage years of her life. She hardly seems fit to be a conventional hero or role model in this tale. In fact, as the story of a young woman confused and without direction, the book might be more appropriately titled “gather together in my names”: As Marguerite, Rita, Reet, Maya, My, Sister, Sugar, and Miss Johnson, Angelou assumes many personas throughout the story. In addition, she takes on the roles of cook, waitress, madam, army recruit, dancer, prostitute, restaurant manager, and chauffeur. Beyond the book’s confusion, however, Angelou offers insight into a range of experiences, providing helpful advice about the pain and trauma of growing up African American and female in the United States.
Angelou’s story is not always a happy one. Despite the authority of the older and wiser Angelou that guides the writing, the voice of a troubled and often confused younger woman resonates throughout. Yet Angelou does not judge harshly her teenage pregnancy or the drug use, prostitution, and crime that are central elements both in her own life story and in those of the people with whom she comes in contact.
It is ultimately with a tone of wisdom and confidence that Angelou shares what she comes to view as the ill-informed and often bad choices she made during these years in her life. After she learned that her child had been kidnapped, she writes, she wanted desperately to cry. Instead, she squared her shoulders and concluded that “I had been stupid, again. And stupidity had led me into a trap where...
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Gather Together in My Name is more limited in scope than Angelou’s first work of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1971). While the earlier volume covers the author’s first sixteen years, this book focuses on only three years of the author’s life. Yet Angelou is able to fashion the story of those three years into an inspirational tale worth sharing. The book has no clear conclusion, being only one volume in a multipart autobiographical series, and readers must turn to the following volumes to continue the story of Angelou’s life. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas was published in 1976; it was followed by The Heart of a Woman (1981) and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986).
As a strong and powerful voice in the tradition of African-American women’s autobiographical writing, Angelou commands a central position. The book should be popular with a young adult audience because Angelou speaks truthfully and directly about her own experiences, both positive and negative, as a young adult. The book’s subject matter, which touches on teenage pregnancy, prostitution, homosexuality, crime, gambling, and drugs, is mature but should be suitable for readers in their late teens. Upon publication, Gather Together in My Name was warmly praised and highly recommended for inclusion in high-school, public, and college libraries.