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. We’ve just all finished this third volume and I think we all agreed it was an excellent, and fun, read. Ali’s review will come out soon and I’ll link to it when it does.

Maya Angelou – “Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

(April 2021)

My life was an assemblage of strivings and my energies were directed toward acquiring more than the basic needs.” (p. 19)

Again we pick up where the last book ended. Maya is living in a rented room and working at two jobs; she finds a great local record shop and is busy picking up records, distrustful of the White owner who offers her credit but eventually accepting her – and a job at the shop. This is good news, as she can finally take her son out of childcare (which involves him boarding at someone else’s house again and only staying with her one night a week; this seems so harsh and sad, especially when she almost lost him before when the childminder moved house) and she enjoys her work.

But men get in the way again – as always, although she’s more resolute and even more independent by the end of this volume. She gets married to a man who seems loving but practises what we’d call today coercive control. She retains enough spirit that when he actively insults her and her son, she gets out and we cheer for her. But what to do now? Stripping in a local joint seems the only option – but she gets on the wrong side of the other girls when she’s honest about what’s in the “champagne cocktails” she’s supposed to get men to buy her, and thus attracts more attention. She is such an attractive and honest character that she can’t help making friends, and so through them she gets another and better job, singing and dancing in another bar but without being on the edges of prostitution. And from there, as well as gaining the name “Maya Angelou”, she manages to secure a role in the touring opera Porgy and Bess, and things start to get really fun.

For the latter part of the book, we’re touring Europe and North Africa with Maya and the company, all Black American singers and performers, with varying reactions as they visit places where almost no one’s seen a Black person before then end up in Africa, with Black and Brown faces all around them (but inequalities and racial tensions still). She has some great stories to tell and when she has to make more money, she has the attractive character and skills to do so in side-hustles to her main performance. Her description of her cast-mates and the transformation from tired and bickering people to bright and emotional performers is absorbing.

There are a couple of mis-steps – at one point, and she does seem to imply she redressed this later, Angelou admits that she was as distant from the idea of Palestinians being displaced by the formation of Israel as she was from the idea of native Americans being displaced by White settlers, and shortly afterwards she mentions that she doesn’t want to bring her son over to tour with them for fear of the gay men in the company having an influence over him – she does explain it’s not that she worries about them “molesting” him but him copying their gestures and way of being to win admiration. Not her finest moment, although as ever, well-explained.

There are some very interesting notes on race in this book, from Maya’s natural distrust of first her record-shop employer and then a White Southern man who accompanies her songs, to her reaction to being in Canada , which had been the dream destination for enslaved people escaping via the Underground Railway, the effect of which had carried through to her times, to Europeans’ preference for Black Americans over White Americans, even in countries like Italy which America had defeated in war only a decade previously, to the information I found newly in my recent reading, but was here all the time, that white Americans then and apparently now found it easier to accept Africans, Cubans and South Americans than the Black people who had shared their country for generations.

We end with Maya and her son, now Guy, both having moved away from the names they started the book with, in Hawaii on a performing job after she puts her foot down and insists he must be able to accompany her. I wonder where she’ll go next …

This is Book 14 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 1 in my All Virago (and other publishers doing a similar thing) / All August project.