Maya Angelou has produced only a few short stories, but those stories, like her multiple volumes of autobiography, deal directly and poignantly with issues of African American life in America. Since her early years, Angelou has been a political activist and educator, and she is knowledgeable and articulate about civil rights and related issues. Her fiction, like her poetry and her nonfiction, reflects social issues and conditions in the second half of the twentieth century, when racial barriers were falling, but the problems behind them continued. In this sense, Angelou must be considered a social realist, for her stories demonstrate the difficulties of growing up an African American woman in an America still riven by racism and sexism. Dozens of anthologies and other collections of contemporary literature have excerpted pieces from one or another of Angelou’s autobiographies because they raise so many important issues about modern America—about identity, education, gender, and race. Her short stories are only marginally more fictional and raise many of the same issues.
“Steady Going Up”
“Steady Going Up” was first published in the collection Ten Times Black in 1972 and has since been reprinted several times, including in Gloria Naylor’s Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present (1995). The story seems more dated than “The Reunion” but raises several important questions nonetheless. As the story opens, a young black man, Robert, is traveling by bus from his home in Memphis to Cincinnati. He has never before been out of Tennessee, but this is hardly a pleasure trip, for he is rushing to pick up his younger sister at the nursing school where she has suddenly become ill (possibly from kidney trouble). Robert has raised Baby Sister since their parents died within six months of each other: “He was three years older than she when, at fifteen, he took over as head of the family.” Getting a job as a mechanic at a local garage, he has been able to support Baby Sister, see her through high school, and send her to nursing school. He has had to put his own life on hold (he plans to marry Barbara Kendrick when Baby Sister is finished with school), and now her illness may further complicate his life. The bus ride is full of understandable anxiety for Robert.
When the bus makes its last stop before Cincinnati, Robert gets off to relieve himself but is cornered in the “colored” bathroom by two white men, who have also been traveling on the bus. An older black woman, who was sitting across the aisle from Robert during the trip, has already warned him about the two men, who have been drinking and staring at him. Now they confront him, accusing him of going north to find white women. Robert cannot “stand the intention of meanness” in the two men, and he decides to act so that he will not miss the bus: “He wasn’t going to get left with these two crazy men.” When one tries to force him to drink the bourbon that has made them both drunk, Robert kicks him in the groin and then hits the other man over the head with the bottle. Robert manages to get back on the bus, hiding the blood on his hands and shirt, and the bus pulls away with the two men still sprawled in the bathroom. There is no resolution to the story except this escape. Robert has left “those crazy men”—at least for now—but the reader wonders what will happen to him. He may be free of them for the moment, but the hatred and violence they represent will continue to follow him. The story ends with a neutral description of the continuing bus trip: “Then he felt the big motor turn and the lights darkened and that old big baby pulled away from the sidewalk and on its way to Cincinnati.” Robert’s problems—as for so many African Americans at this time—still lie before him.
“The Reunion” has been collected several times, first in the Amina and Amiri Baraka collection Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women. The story is short (only five pages) but is a much more positive short fiction than the earlier “Steady Going Up,” with its lack of resolution. The story is set in 1958 and is narrated by a jazz pianist named Philomena Jenkins, who is playing the Sunday matinee at the Blue Palm Café on the South Side of Chicago with the Cal Callen band. It is a club filled with other African Americans, but suddenly on this day Philomena spots Miss Beth Ann Baker, a white woman sitting with Willard, a large black man. The sight sends Philomena back in memory to her painful childhood growing up in Baker, Georgia, where her parents worked for the Bakers, and she lived in the servants’ quarters behind the Baker main house.
The memories are painful because these were “years of loneliness,” when Philomena was called “the Baker Nigger” by other children, and she has moved a long way from “the hurt Georgia put on me” to her present success in jazz music. She fantasizes about what she will say to Beth Ann when she meets her, but when they finally face each other at the bar a little later in the story, it is Beth Ann who does all the talking. She is going to marry Willard, who is a south side school teacher, she tells Philomena, and she claims she is very happy. However, her parents have disowned her and even forbidden her to return to Baker. It is clear that she is with Willard to spite her parents, for she sounds to Philomena like “a ten-year-old just before a tantrum,” “white and rich and spoiled.” When Beth Ann invites “Mena” to their wedding, the narrator replies simply, “’Good-bye Beth. Tell your parents I said go to hell and take you with them, just for company.’” When she returns to her piano after this break, she realizes that Beth Annhad the money, but I had the music. She and her parents had had the power to hurt me when I was young, but look, the stuff in me lifted me up above them. No matter how bad times became, I would always be the song struggling to be heard.
Through her tears, Philomena has had an epiphany and experienced a form of reconciliation with her true self, in the recognition that art can transcend social inequity. In the story’s last lines, “The piano keys were slippery with tears. I know, I sure as hell wasn’t crying for myself.” Like a number of other artists James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, among them), Maya Angelou posits art—and thus literature—as one way of getting above and beyond the social injustices that her society has created. Philomena cannot erase the painful childhood memories, but her music can lift her and others above them to another, healthier human plane. The hurt may remain, but the “song struggling to be heard” is stronger.