All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes

by Maya Angelou
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is about hopelessness and repeats the theme of displacement. However, in this instance, the sense of displacement is more complex than in I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings. In the 1960’s, Angelou travels to what she believes is the place of her African roots, hoping that this country will fill the vacuum she feels for home. By returning to the land of her ancestors, where all are black regardless of color, she hopes to find and perhaps recognize “home.” She joins other black Americans also questing for identity and security, and, like most of them, Angelou discovers that the geographical search is a misleading one. The source of security, she comes to learn, is not in a place but within oneself.

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Angelou chooses to live in Ghana following the end of her marriage. Kwame Nkrumah is Ghana’s beloved ruler five years after its independence from Britain, and there is a sense of pride in the new country. Angelou joins a group of black Americans who have come to Ghana to be part of the great experiment. Angelou hopes that she and her son will find a land freed of the racial bigotry she has faced wherever she has lived or traveled. Hopeful and idealistic, she sets herself up for disappointment and disillusion. During her three-year stay in Africa, she is not welcomed as she has expected to be; even more painful, she is frequently ignored by the very people with whom she thinks she shares roots, the Africans. As she tries to understand this new kind of pain and homelessness, she also struggles with the sense of having two selves, an American self and an African self.

A stunning example of this struggle occurs when the black American community in Ghana, together with some sympathetic Ghanaians, decides to support the August 27, 1963, March on Washington—the march led by Martin Luther King, Jr.—by leading a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Accra. The march does not have the impact its participants hope it will have because the demonstrators, including Angelou, are ambivalent about who they are, where they are, and where their quest for security is leading them. This ambivalence is dramatized when one of the marchers jeers a black soldier who is raising the American flag in front of the American embassy, prompting Angelou to reflect on the fact that the Stars and Stripes was the flag of the expatriates and, more important, their only flag. The recognition of her divided self continues during the remainder of her stay in African, including during time spent with Malcolm X. The volatile activist has a profound impact upon Angelou, who had met him two years earlier but who sees him and hears his words from her current context of an orphan looking for a home and looking for reasons to stay in that home. As she observes the various personalities Malcolm X exhibits—from big-brother adviser to spokesperson against oppression and for revolutions—she reflects upon his commitment to changing the status quo in the United States. As she leaves, she observes that Malcolm’s presence had elevated the expatriates but that his departure left them with the same sense of displacement with which they had arrived in Africa.

Ultimately, Angelou is compelled to return to the United States. She leaves, having become aware that home is not a geographical location but a psychological state. She leaves having learned that her survival depends upon finding herself within herself, wearing her traveling shoes, like all God’s children.

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