Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Maya Angelou’s poetry and prose typically elicit positive reviews from critics, who see her works as speaking to universal themes. Lynn Z. Bloom, reviewing The Heart of a Woman, observes that Angelou’s autobiographical series reveals the author “in the process of becoming a self-created Everywoman.” The fifth volume in the series, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, is a vivid example of the universality of this Everywoman’s message.
While Angelou’s journey is clearly that of a particular African American woman to a specific place, it is also that of all people who go somewhere hoping for familiarity and security only to learn that they cannot go home again. Instead, such travelers keep moving on, believing that their journeys and their stories are meaningful.
In fact, Angelou’s story has special significance to and reveals a great deal about those whom critic Wanda Coleman calls “both African and American.” Drawing from an autobiographical tradition that began with slave narratives, Angelou relates a story that focuses attention upon the “hyphenated” culture of African Americans. She explores the tension and similarity between a past characterized by slavery and exploitation and a present characterized by oppression and misunderstanding, and she does so with hope, not bitterness.
Angelou’s fifth self-portrait, like its predecessors, is a prose poem—not a surprising hybrid for a woman whose poetry is nearly as famous as her narratives. Ghana, the Fanti language of its people, and the people themselves are presented with a lyricism not often found in autobiographies. The clear voice of the poet guides readers through a journey that is Everywoman’s. Just as Angelou’s first memoir looked at various dimensions of victimization—including that of a caged bird or an innocent child as she grows up in racist America—so does her fifth. Both in its examination of an African country that has just won its independence from European colonizers and in its examination of a woman winning her independence from her limiting and limited notion of home, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is a book about freedom movements and the freedom to move.