As a historical document, The Heart of a Woman touches on some of the most important social issues of the years in which it is set. Its thematic concerns, however, are equally varied. Though some, like the relationship between a mother and her son, are affected by the social climate in which events are set, all of Angelou's themes are universal ones, relating to interpersonal bonds and the individual's relationship to his or her cultural heritage.
The most obvious theme involves family ties. Both Angelou's relationship with her mother and her difficult role as a mother are explored throughout the pages of The Heart of a Woman. The responsibilities of motherhood are Angelou's chief concern, and they are addressed as social concerns as well as a separate thematic issue. Angelou considers the nature of motherhood when she removes it from the historical imperatives of her time. One such example occurs early in the text when she introduces her son to jazz singer Billie Holiday: "Guy was born to me when I was an unmarried teenager, so I had given him my father's name. I didn't want Billie to know that much about our history." Motherhood, for Angelou, is an intensely personal affair. At many moments in the book, she speaks of her son as a private, cherished possession. This treatment of her relationship speaks to the universality of maternal experience rather than the particular requirements foisted upon mothers at the outset of the Civil Rights movement. Times of social upheaval call for a particular brand of child rearing, but some of the traits of maternal behavior remain constant regardless of when or where the nurturing occurs.
This set of universal traits for maternity is reflected in Angelou's mother, Vivian. When she calls her mother to set up a time to meet, Vivian responds as if her child had not grown at all: "'Of course we can meet, of course, I want to see you, baby.' Six feet tall, with a fourteen-year-old son, and I was still called baby." When she does meet her mother, Angelou quickly regresses into childhood, reassured, as always, by her mother's calming presence.
Of course, Angelou's picture of mother-child relations is not naively rosy. She lies to her mother about the arrangements she had made for Guy's care in her absence. Furthermore, Guy, when he reaches his teen years, acts towards his mother with the sauciness one might expect of an adolescent. The bond between a mother and her offspring is a strong and private one; nevertheless, it is one infused with conflict and deceit.
Another problematic relationship explored by Angelou involves the connection of an individual to his or her cultural heritage. Angelou tells the reader that a resurgent interest in African culture among African-Americans was concurrent with the Civil Rights movement: "Black women and men had begun to wear multicolored African prints. They moved through the Harlem streets like bright sails on a dark sea." As the sentence about moving through Harlem implies, Angelou considers the rediscovery of ancestral practices a boon to the strength and cohesiveness of black America. Like the picture of familial bonds, however, this relationship between the individual and an ancient culture is not all positive. At one point, Angelou and some of her female cohorts debate the relative merits of straightening their hair. For some, the choice is entirely political: straightening one's curls aligns one with white society. For Angelou, however, a woman's sense of beauty is entirely personal. Politics, she argues, should not interfere with a woman's right to make herself beautiful in her own eyes.
Additionally, Angelou recognizes that the African culture with which she and her contemporaries attempt to realign themselves is not an entirely positive one. Her marriage to Vus reveals the patriarchy and sexism she sees pervading African society. Angelou thus seems to suggest that one's ancestral practices need to be integrated into modern society selectively. Much good can come from wearing the prints and fabrics of ancient tradition, but some traditions are best left in the past.