Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
As a writer and poet, Angelou has justly earned a place in the pantheon of American authors. Her first autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, caused a sensation in the late 1960’s and was nominated for a National Book Award. At the time, it was not recognized as the first of what would ultimately be a series of memoirs. Over the intervening years, no book in the series has garnered the acclaim of the original. However, as time has passed, The Heart of a Woman has grown in reputation as perhaps the second-best of the series.
Angelou is at times less than forthcoming as an autobiographer. Her books seem to be composed of vignettes woven together to form an attractive pattern, rather than seamless tapestries. Her story is thus a quilt, and pieces of the quilt are selected for their colors, their textures, and their harmony in complementing the other pieces. Angelou makes her life’s story mysterious by omitting motivations and disguising connections. One minute, she is a singer and dancer; the next, she is producing a major fund-raising event in New York City. The transition is unexplained. Similarly, as a woman with no college education whose background is in singing, dancing, and acting, she nevertheless becomes the administrator for the northern office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The details remain hidden and perhaps are better left unknown.