I and my friend Ali plus our non-blogger friend Meg are working our way through Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books in a sort of mini-challenge that has no rules or time constraints – we just try to read the book at approximately the same time. She’d got ahead with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” so I read that as quickly as I could (my review is here, with a link to hers) and then we read this one together last month – blog post scheduling issues meant it came over into this month for both me and Ali, and she posted her review the other day (here).

Maya Angelou – “Gather Together in My Name”

(April 2021)

I had written a juicy melodrama in which I was to be the start. Pathetic, poignant, isolated. I planned to drift out of the wings, a little girl martyr. It just so happened that life took my script away and upstaged me. (p. 38)

We pick up where Caged Bird finished, with Maya just having had her son. It’s wartime and there’s a busyness around, with parties, servicepeople and black marketeers all over the place, plenty of jobs for everyone. Then the war ends and mass unemployment starts. Maya decides to pay her own way rather than leave her baby with her mum and go back into education. She gets a job and a room, puts her baby into a series of rather informal childcare arrangements (one of which later on could have gone badly wrong) and starts to look around for a boyfriend. But she’s not going to escape the sexism and abuse that blighted her earlier years that easily, and falls in with a married man who pushes her into a sexual relationship.

As we passed through the hotel lobby, I felt the first stirring of reluctance. Now, wait a minute. What was I doing here? What did he think I was? He hadn’t even said he loved me. Where was the soft music that should be playing as he kissed my ear lobe? (p. 23)

Maya does some pretty sketchy things, including running a brothel and turning to sex work herself, but she sees it all so clear-sightedly from her more secure future, names what she does, names why, names what is wrong and right, takes responsibility and, ultimately, comes to see her son as something more than just a doll or an extension of herself and as a person. She learns a harsh lesson when she returns to her grandmother’s house, only to go into a white-owned shop and give herself airs and have to leave town in a hurry – shocking scenes, really.

Being Maya, she’s reading the whole way through the book, and discovers and sinks into the classic Russians. Her brother also continues to feature, although he is spiralling down in this book and there are some sad scenes. There’s also a wry laugh and an indication of the title of her next book when she’s talking to fellow sex-worker Clara about why she came off the streets to work in a house: “… my daddy brought me down to this crib. Let the heat get off. Then I’ll be back switching and bitching and getting merry like Christmas” (p. 169).

This volume ends weirdly positively, given that it ends pretty much in a crack house. She gives a promise not to touch drugs and packs up to go back to her mother’s