Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
On January 20, 1993, Maya Angelou became only the second poet to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration (Robert Frost was the first). She read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony; three of the poem’s stanzas suggest some of the themes and meanings of All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes:
Lift up your eyes uponThe day breaking for you.Give birth againTo the dream.Women, children, men,Take it into the palms of your hands.Mold it into the shape of your mostPrivate need. Sculpt it intoThe image of your most public self.Lift up your heartsEach new hour holds new chancesFor new beginnings.Do not be wedded foreverTo fear, yoked eternallyTo brutishness.
These words suggest the impetus for Angelou’s journey to Africa, for her quest to don traveling shoes that will help her search out a place to call home. Believing that she must be an active traveler, a person seizing the day and “new chances for new beginnings,” she boldly sets out for Ghana. She undertakes the journey fearlessly, not “yoked eternally” to any kind of brutishness that might deter her.
Every step of the journey reveals this fearlessness. As she begins her sojourn in Ghana, Angelou sees the future as “plump with promise,” despite the fact that she has no job and no house and despite her son Guy’s being injured in an automobile accident on the third day of their stay in Ghana. Specific episodes that would frustrate, if not paralyze, others do not daunt her. She argues with a group of people at the university who make demeaning remarks about African Americans; she works through her son’s rejection of her following an argument they have about his dating an older woman; and she deals with the displacement she feels as she travels from Ghana to Germany and Egypt. In all these experiences, she continues to think and speak boldly, fearlessly, and hopefully.
In that spirit, home beckons her and emerges as a major theme of Angelou’s memoir and her journey. From the dedication of the book to its last page, in which Angelou states that she “was not sad departing Ghana,” this self-portrait is a song of hope and a hymn of praise. Its hope and praise stem from a sadness that Angelou describes at the end of her work assimultaneously somber and wonderful: I had not consciously come to Ghana to find the roots of my beginnings, but I had continually and accidentally tripped over them or fallen upon them in my everyday life.
Her tripping and falling enlightens Angelou, allowing her to see that her ancestors, though taken by force from Africa, had not completely left that country. Like them, she is experiencing a leave-taking, and like them she will carry Africa with her.
Still another connection with her ancestors is Angelou’s commitment to a dream, to the ability to “give birth again/ To the dream,” as she wrote in the poem celebrating Clinton’s inauguration. Though oppressed, victimized, and rejected, Angelou’s ancestors continued to dream of the freedom and respect they deserved as human beings. These dreams are chronicled in the slave narratives that are the forerunners of Angelou’s autobiographical writings, such as Frederick Douglass’s moving account of his escape from slavery and his dedication to the abolitionist cause. Published in 1845, Douglass’s account is a model for those chronicles, like Angelou’s, that emphasize the importance of believing in a dream and working to make that dream become a reality. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and Angelou’s other self-portraits pay tribute to the courage and creativity that color her dream for a homeland, for rootedness, and for connections with her past.
Angelou began her journey dreaming and looking for something—home—that was a physical, geographical, external place. She concludes her book but continues her voyage by realizing that the security associated with home is internal. All the people she met in Ghana, all the experiences she accrued, and all the trials and tribulations she endured—all of these combine to enlighten her about the decisions she needs to make as she goes on with her life. Like the caged bird of her first autobiography, the author of the fifth self-portrait knows why she sings, why she dreams, and why she travels. She is a survivor, like her ancestors; like those foremothers and forefathers, like all God’s children, she needs traveling shoes.
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