Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Told with beauty and grace, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical work Gather Together in My Name soars and sings. Written nearly three decades after the period it portrays, the autobiography is a recollection of roughly three years in Angelou’s life. Not afraid to bare her soul and admit to bad judgment, followed by sometimes devastating consequences, Angelou gives readers glimpses into the challenges faced by a seventeen-year-old mother, herself still a child, trying to make her way in the world with her young son. The period covered is described chronologically, and the work is divided into short chapters that colorfully depict episodes and characters that were central in the author’s journey toward self-discovery and maturity.

In the nearly three years covered in the autobiography, Angelou moved from job to job, experienced a number of disappointing relationships with men, and had an occasional brush with trouble along the way. Her story is sprinkled with keen observations of the characters she encountered in restaurants, nightclubs, and brothels. As readers learn, Angelou is a highly literate writer. Her love of words is apparent; the story is richly descriptive.

Because of Angelou’s superb story-telling skills, readers are drawn into each episode she re-creates and eagerly await the resolution of the various crises she confronts. Through the course of the story Angelou moved around in California—from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego. At one point she fled to Stamps, Arkansas, where she had been reared by her grandmother. There she found herself “worldly,” however, after her experiences in California, and she was no longer able to fit into the small Southern world, which was strictly segregated along racial lines and defined by a racial etiquette to which she could no longer adhere.

During these years Angelou came into contact with drug users, gamblers, con artists, pimps, and prostitutes. At one point she found herself acting as a pimp. Months later, she was tricked into prostituting for a man she loved and whom she believed loved her. Forced to leave her son in the care of baby-sitters while she worked to earn a living, Angelou at one point met a woman she calls Big Mary, who one day left town without a trace, taking Angelou’s son with her. Yet from these unlikely teachers and seemingly destructive experiences, Angelou learned valuable lessons about life that she shares with the reader.