All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes

by Maya Angelou
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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130

The dual experiences of loss and gain which are at the heart of Angelou’s autobiography are related to the book’s central concern with homelessness. Returning to what she believes is the place of her roots, her African roots, and hopeful that this place will fill the vacuum she feels, Angelou travels to Ghana with great expectations. She is joined by other black Americans who have come to this country with different motivations and who are thus categorized by Angelou in one of four different ways.

First there are the families, more than forty of them, who have come as teachers and farmers with the simple desire to become one with the country and its landscape. A second group, associated with and sent by the American government, is less warmly received, for they assume an unnatural manner and demonstrate a phony deference toward the Europeans and white Americans in the country. The third group includes a small business community seeking its fortune in the area of Accra. The fourth group, among which Angelou counts herself, is political emigres whose aspirations are grand and far-reaching:We . . . felt that we would be the first accepted[,] and once taken in and truly adopted, we would hold the doors open until all Black Americans could step over our feet, enter through the hallowed portals and come home at last.

With that kind of idealistic dream, it is not surprising that Angelou is awakened into a reality that includes doors still closed, portals still shut, and a home still elusive. One of the first disappointments is financial. Having obtained a job at the University of Ghana as an administrative assistant, Angelou expects a salary and benefits commensurate with the title and responsibilities. What she receives, however, is a salary far below that of the British employees and a position that carries with it no house, tuition, or moving allowance. Thus, one of her first hopes of Ghana—financial security—is threatened.

If that first job and salary did not teach Angelou that Ghana would not provide her with economic sustenance, her next effort at upgrading her professional position is a clear lesson: She decides to capitalize on her talents and experience as a writer by applying for a position with the Ghanian Times. The editor, T. D. Kwesi Bafoo, offers her exactly what she is receiving at the University: “the standard fee.” Angelou, however, has not come to Ghana for that kind of minimal standard; she has come for much more, and she is continually being forced to readjust her expectations, a painful process and one that leads her to yet another potential employer.

At the Ghana Broadcasting Office, she is literally prevented from entry. When Angelou persists in her efforts to gain an interview, the discourteous and unprofessional receptionist elicits harsh words from Angelou and responds as harshly. The scorn with which this native of Ghana treats Angelou is a sobering experience, alerting the exiled American that she has not yet found home.

Still searching for that haven, Angelou, ever observant and sensitive, watches and assimilates many scenarios, including that involving university personnel who demonstrate their attitudes toward Ghana in dramatic fashion. In the senior common room, this international coterie—an Englishman, a Yugoslav, a Canadian, a German, and an African—engage in a conversation about black Americans which becomes a conversation about Ghana. The climactic moment occurs when the Englishman announces that democracy was never intended for the masses, as exemplified by Ghana. The African responds, agrees, and makes light of the whole issue. The only person to contest the smug allegations of this international group is Angelou, whose angry outburst catches the attention of the kitchen steward. He points out that all the speakers are visitors, not natives, and that the African is a “Beentoo,” a person who studied abroad and then returned to Ghana with European affectations. He adds that Angelou is also a “Beentoo” but that her people, nevertheless, were from Ghana. She can still claim the country as her home, he implies, but she needs to understand what that truly means.

In her effort to understand, she learns that politics are an integral part of homeland. Ghana’s politics were influenced by general support for and admiration of President Kwame Nkrumah, a leader who encouraged his people to honor their African identity. A man whose words were memorized and chanted by his followers, he occupied a hallowed niche within the Ghanaian world. People followed his every move, watched his private and public lives, and idolized the man who articulated hope for his people. This adulation was acute among the Americans, who saw themselves as “Revolutionist Returnees,” people who were hopeful that this leader at last would direct their energies and recognize their worth.

This hope is threatened with an attempt upon Nkrumah’s life, and it is seriously undermined by a wave of accusations against many people, including the American exiles. The atmosphere becomes thick with suspicion, exacerbated by such comments as that the United States has used its black citizens to infiltrate Ghana. One commentator advises the Africans to distance themselves from American blacks in the country, adding that if communication is necessary it should be done with caution. Though the atmosphere of suspicion subsides, its effect remains with the Revolutionist Returnees: They are in the motherland, but the mother is not completely at ease with her children.

Assimilating all these experiences, Angelou engages in the activity that is at the heart of autobiography: the attempt to make meaning. She evaluates her dreams and her realities, her great expectations and her equally great actualities, and she discovers that “you can’t go home again,” that home is not an external, geographical place but rather an internal, psychological state. Her experiences lead her to this recognition, as does the advice of Malcolm X, who reminds her that she has seen Africa and that she should then bring it to the United States and teach her people about the homeland. With a sadness she describes as “simultaneously somber and wonderful,” Angelou concludes her autobiography by remembering the mystery in the words, “Deep River, my home is over Jordan,” and describing the home she carries with her as she leaves Ghana:As we carried it [Africa] to Philadelphia, Boston and Birmingham we had changed its color, modified its rhythms, yet it was Africa which rode in the bulges of our high calves, shook in our protruding behinds and crackled in our wide open laughter. I could nearly hear the old ones chuckling.

Concluding on this note of laughter, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is a paean to the triumph of the wandering troubadours who know that their songs are the best medicine for the incurable disease of homesickness.

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