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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.

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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 entire section contains 661 words.)

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Critical Context