Continuing my readalong with Meg and Ali of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, this was our September read and a very good and interesting one it was, too. Ali’s excellent review is here.

Maya Angelou – “The Heart of a Woman”

(April 2021)

The black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion. She questions whether she loves her children enough – or more terribly, does she love them too much … In the face of these contradictions, she must provide a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged. (p. 44)

We pick up this one a little after the end of the last one, which is a change from the previous books, which all ran on from one another. We left Angelou in Hawaii and here she is, living in a sort of commune, having dropped out of the system in some way. But, being Maya Angelou, she’s soon on the move again, with her son Guy, a teenager now and keen to take on manhood and responsibility.

Soon she’s in New York and getting involved with some serious activism, encountering Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and also meeting African freedom fighters exiled or visiting. It’s interesting to see that people in New York become keen on wearing African prints and natural hair becomes more fashionable/acceptable – her careful delineation of these changes helps this be a useful historical document.

She has good friends and has started writing seriously, joining a writers’ group and having that classic terrifying time the first time her work is critiqued. Soon she’s using her creative and administrative skills to work in an office supporting activism and organising, but she also meets yet another unsuitable man, this time Vus, a South African freedom fighter whose struggles she respects but also who attracts her. Engaged at the time, she has to sort things out amidst some genuine peril – peril which doesn’t stop when she becomes an official freedom fighter’s wife. Well, um …

I explained that i wanted to have my mother and son present at my wedding and asked if we could wait. he patted my cheek and said, ‘Of course. In London we will say we married in America. When we return to New York we will say we married in England. We will have our wedding according to your wishes and whenever you say. I am marrying you this minute. Will you say yes?’

I said yes.

‘Then we are married.’

We never mentioned the word marriage again. (p. 168)

Whose heart wouldn’t sink for her when reading that? Although was it a handy thing in the end …?

The encounters in this book with well-known figures, from a memorable week with Billie Holiday to the aforementioned activism leaders give a different fascination to the previous books. Life as an American expat in Africa, for yes, she eventually goes there, is also very interesting to read about – although, as usual, she risks ending up being thrown onto her own resources, and she always makes sure she can pay her way and support herself and Guy. That relationship with Guy also changes, however, naturally as he’s growing up and separating off from her, but also encouraged by Vus, who wants him to become an ‘African man’.

A great instalment and I can’t wait to find out what happens next. I’m so glad I’m getting to read all of these magnificent volumes of autobiography!

It’s not a Book Synchronicity as such but when Angelou is flying from Egypt to Ghana and weeps through the whole flight for the African people who were snatched from their land by slave traders, it’s hard not to think instantly of Alex Haley’s “Roots” which I’m also reading at the moment.