Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661
In Gather Together in My Name, Angelou appears to be aimless, drifting through the late teenage years of her life. She hardly seems fit to be a conventional hero or role model in this tale. In fact, as the story of a young woman confused and without direction, the book might be more appropriately titled “gather together in my names”: As Marguerite, Rita, Reet, Maya, My, Sister, Sugar, and Miss Johnson, Angelou assumes many personas throughout the story. In addition, she takes on the roles of cook, waitress, madam, army recruit, dancer, prostitute, restaurant manager, and chauffeur. Beyond the book’s confusion, however, Angelou offers insight into a range of experiences, providing helpful advice about the pain and trauma of growing up African American and female in the United States.
Angelou’s story is not always a happy one. Despite the authority of the older and wiser Angelou that guides the writing, the voice of a troubled and often confused younger woman resonates throughout. Yet Angelou does not judge harshly her teenage pregnancy or the drug use, prostitution, and crime that are central elements both in her own life story and in those of the people with whom she comes in contact.
It is ultimately with a tone of wisdom and confidence that Angelou shares what she comes to view as the ill-informed and often bad choices she made during these years in her life. After she learned that her child had been kidnapped, she writes, she wanted desperately to cry. Instead, she squared her shoulders and concluded that “I had been stupid, again. And stupidity had led me into a trap where I had lost my baby. I tried to erase L. D. Tolbrook from my mind.” Since “melting down on the pavement in tears of frustration would not have changed the fact” that her baby was missing, Angelou set off to right her wrong. As often happens in the autobiography, she was able to turn tragedy to triumph, to learn from her mistakes.
Through the support and love of her immediate family, particularly her mother and older brother Bailey, Angelou finds solace and a support system that sustains her through crises. Her mother Vivian constantly urges her to “be the best of anything you get into.” She tells Angelou, “If you want to be a whore, it’s your life. Be a damn good one. Don’t chippy at anything. Anything worth having is worth working for.” In her various exploits, Angelou seems to keep this advice in the front of her mind. She suggests that, by using her life as an example, the reader can and should do the same.
As Angelou reflects upon the injustices based on race and gender that have shaped her life, she offers examples of the coping mechanisms and spirit of survival and courage that allowed her to triumph in the face of difficulty. Even as a confused young adult, she is ultimately a role model worthy of respect and admiration. Angelou intends the episodes in her life to be instructive. She does not wallow in self-pity or waste a moment on regret. Time after time, young Maya is knocked down but quickly picks herself up, brushes herself off, and moves on. In this way, the reader is invited to learn from her mistakes.
In the course of the autobiography, Angelou’s path from innocence to a wiser maturity is, in a sense, marked by a return to innocence. After a friend forces her to watch him shoot heroin to deter her from turning to drugs to solve her problems, Angelou concludes Gather Together in My Name by noting that “I had no idea what I was going to make of my life, but I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I’d never lose it again.” It is this path to innocence through awareness that makes the writer’s story a compelling and inspirational book for young adults.