All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes

by Maya Angelou
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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Though each of her autobiographies is a discrete volume, telling its own story, it is useful to look at Maya Angelou’s self-portraits as a kind of multivolumed autobiography. Beginning with perhaps the most famous memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, these self-portraits are related by their focus upon the person Maya Angelou, a Renaissance woman of the twentieth century. In addition to the composite portrait the autobiographies produce, the books demonstrate a curious combination of prose and poetry, fact and fiction, story and storyteller.

Because of these permutations, it is challenging to evaluate All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes as a literary work. One of the problems with such an evaluation is the question of authorial voice and intention. At times the storyteller sounds like a poet, gently singing of the beauties of Africa and of the soul’s journey to find itself. At other times, the narrator sounds like a sociologist, analyzing behavioral patterns of a people carrying its “skeletons of old despair like necklaces.” At still other times, the autobiographer sounds like a novelist or a dramatist, setting up a dialogue that might be included in a fictional work or performed onstage. How, then, to critique this autobiography, a literary form which, by definition, is the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself? The answer is probably to loosen the definition of autobiography, enlarge the notion of history, and evaluate All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes as a self-portrait like its four predecessors, a book that includes many genres, many motivations, many messages, not least of which is the value of books that do not fit neatly into any one category.

Finally, this book is significant, not for its formal aspects, though its poetic style and its mixture of forms surely suit its reflective tone, but because of its carefully wrought focus upon the question of home. Like a disciplined novelist who understands thematic unity, like a well-trained historian who looks at multiple causes leading to one effect, Angelou keeps her and her readers’ attention upon one general issue. Writing from both personal and universal experience, she selects details, anecdotes, and observations to sing about one important aspect of the human condition, the longing for a place of security:The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. It impels mighty ambitions and dangerous capers. We amass great fortunes at the cost of our souls, or risk our lives in drug dens from London’s Soho, to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. We shout in Baptist churches, wear yarmulkes and wigs and argue even the tiniest points in the Torah, or worship the sun and refuse to kill cows for the starving. Hoping that by doing these things, home will find us acceptable or failing that, that we will forget our awful yearning for it.

The thematic unity of this autobiography, its weaving of many threads into one fabric about home, is its greatest strength.

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