Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoesis the fifth of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical works. Her previous four self-portraits—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), and The Heart of a Woman (1981)—trace Angelou’s life from her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, to her work during the 1960’s as a civil rights worker in the United States and abroad. The fifth self-portrait is both a chronological and a thematic extension of Angelou’s previous books, as it describes her four-year stay in Ghana and her effort to understand herself.

While Angelou wears traveling shoes in all of her books, her 1986 memoir particularly attests why those shoes are necessary apparel for a woman in perpetual search of herself and of a home in which she hopes to find security and meaning. The dedication of the book and its opening epigraph suggest the work’s focus upon this search: Angelou dedicates her book to “all the fallen ones who were passionately and earnestly looking for a home.” She then uses a line from a famous spiritual to underscore the search for a home: “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

As the book opens, Angelou, at the age of thirty-three, has decided to pursue her quest for roots in Ghana, having recently worked in Cairo as a journalist. She embarks on her journey with excitement and anticipation, seeing it as still another adventure to add to her already adventuresome life of traveling away from and toward new people, experiences, and insights.

Joining other African Americans who have emigrated to Africa, Angelou characterizes the expatriates in four groups, all of whom came to Ghana with distinct sets of expectations. The first group of forty families came as teachers and farmers, people who wanted to become one with the land. The second group, sent by the U.S. government, came seeking the opportunity to demonstrate what they saw as their superiority to the Ghanaians. The third group, the smallest, came to create a business community in the city of Accra. The fourth group, of which Angelou counts herself a part, arrived with the hope of finding home, of finding acceptance and adoption by the people of Ghana. Describing themselves as “Revolutionist Returnees,” these people believed that Africa would welcome them and that eventually all African Americans would follow them and find security and solace among a soon-to-be-created family of black men and women.

Motivated by this search for utopia, Angelou begins her sojourn in Ghana by seeking employment, and she obtains a job at the University of Ghana as an administrative assistant. What appears to be a good beginning for her—gainful employment and the financial means to pursue her search for acceptance in her new homeland—becomes a disappointment. Her salary is far below that of the British employees, and the job carries with it no house, no tuition for her son Guy, and no moving allowance.

Deciding to upgrade her professional position, Angelou applies for a position with the...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)