Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In The Heart of a Woman, the fourth volume of the continuing autobiography begun with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Maya Angelou describes her deepening awareness of the responsibilities of being an African-American woman and mother during the early days of the American civil rights struggle.

Angelou’s account of her personal journey is arranged chronologically in twenty chapters. Chapter I shows her life in California, where she worked as a singer to support her twelve-year-old son, Guy. Chapters 2 through 14 describe her life in New York City as a writer, activist, and mother as she becomes more aware of the volatile political climate of the early 1960’s and its relationship to both African Americans and Africans. Of primary concern is her role as a single African-American mother who must provide emotional stability to a teenage son facing the challenges of a racist society. During this time, she met with the Harlem Writers Guild and became involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), first as an organizer of the fund-raiser “Cabaret for Freedom” and later as the SCLC’s northern coordinator. While still at the SCLC, Angelou fell in love with and married (by common law) the African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make in spite of the fact that she was already engaged. The clash of cultures caused conflicts as the independent activist tried to become the traditional African wife and homemaker. Make’s...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Heart of a Woman is the fourth book in Maya Angelou’s series of memoirs, which includes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). The author’s fourth memoir chronicles the years 1957-1963 and finds Angelou in transition, moving across the country to New York City to join John Killens in the Harlem Writers Guild and hoping to hone her writing skills after years of performing as a singer and dancer.

Beginning the story in California, Angelou and her twelve-year-old son, Guy, find themselves unexpectedly entertaining a houseguest, the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. Nearing the end of her life, Holiday seeks solace and comfort in the normalcy of Angelou’s life, eating Maya’s fried chicken and singing Guy to sleep with a repertoire of jazz standards. Though Holiday plays the role of spoiled diva and rants in a string of freestyle curses during her stay, Angelou chooses to look beyond the rough image and instead appreciate the tenderness Holiday displays in her interactions with Guy.

New York City offered new opportunities and challenges for Angelou, including the production of Cabaret for Freedom that she staged with Godfrey Cambridge. This fund-raising venture brings her to the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who recruits her to succeed Bayard Rustin as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a post she holds for six months. Meanwhile, Angelou attends weekly meetings of the Harlem Writers Guild and...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Angelou's autobiographical work is extraordinary for its blending of the highly personal and the epic. The Heart of a Woman is as much...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Heart of a Woman is a fascinating book, useful for students of both history and the human heart. While bringing some of the era's...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Set in the 1950s and '60s, Maya Angelou's autobiographical works are heavily influenced by the dynamics of the burgeoning Civil Rights...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Though memoirs and autobiographies are perhaps more popular in this era than any other, there is still a long tradition of self-reflexive...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Heart of a Woman is the fourth in a series of five autobiographical texts that relate the events of Angelou's life from her...

(The entire section is 449 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Heart of a Woman is available on audiocassette. The 1997 performance by Maya Angelou is available from Random House Audio.

(The entire section is 20 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Blundell, Janet Boyarin. Review of The Heart of a Woman, by Maya Angelou. Library Journal, October 1, 1981, p. 1919. Finds the text insightful and skillfully narrated, focusing on her familial relationships as providing the “emotional center of the book.”

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Singing the Black Mother: Maya Angelou and Autobiographical Continuity.” Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 257-277. Examines the consistent exploration of motherhood—both literal and metaphoical—throughout Angelou’s autobiographical series.

McWhorter, John. “Saint Maya.” Review of A...

(The entire section is 202 words.)