Maya Angelou once said, “I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at and still survive.” Her protagonist in “The Reunion” epitomizes a survivor in the mold of her description. She is the archetypal black female artist who has struggled to overcome formidable social obstacles and has risen to achieve greater self-understanding and greater appreciation for her talent, honed to perfection by adversity.
In this story, one hears echoes of Angelou’s famous autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), for Angelou, like the character in the story, suffered through a troubled childhood in which racial discrimination was an everyday reality; like Philomena, she endured hardships to develop her art. Angelou reveals her acute understanding of human nature when she paints Philomena as neither saint nor victim, despite the fact that Philomena’s aspirations are spiritual and she has been victimized. She realistically portrays her protagonist as tough, worldly-wise, and unforgiving. Accepting Philomena as a true-to-life human being, the reader understands why she is unbending in the way she resents the wrongs she has suffered and why she feels she owes nothing to her oppressor. At the same time, the reader respects and cheers for the female character who has fashioned a place for herself as a piano player in an otherwise all-male band, gets the billing of “a looker and a cooker,” and lives up to it. As “a cooker” is a slang term for one who can perform any task as an expert, its use in this story is an ironic pun, because women usually prepare meals.