The Barnes & Noble Review
Acclaimed memoirist Maya Angelou, who began her autobiographical series with the classic 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, comes full circle with this tale of her return from Africa to the United States in 1964 to work with Malcolm X.
Poignantly, the book ends with Angelou writing the first line of I Know Why, as she decides it's time to chronicle her life: "I thought if I wrote a book, I would have to examine the quality in the human spirit that continues to rise despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…Rise and be prepared to move on and ever on."
Indeed, there are many wounds inflicted on Angelou in these pages. After flying from Ghana, she journeys to California to reunite with her mother and brother. On arrival, she learns that Malcolm has been murdered. Her despair is furthered by her realization that the reaction to the killing among San Francisco blacks is matter-of-fact.
After a stint as a nightclub singer, Angelou moves to the Watts section of Los Angeles to do market research on black women. She discovers that many of the Watts women are unhappy with their lives: Their husbands are not working, there are children to take care of, and they are increasingly forced to do more with less. Angelou misses nothing with her keen writer's eye:
"Without work and steady salaries, the people could not envision tomorrows."
Her observations prove to be prophetic, as the 1965 Watts riots break out. Once again, she is witness to the difficulties of African-American life in the mid-20th century.
But there is yet one more tragedy in store for her. In 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. asks her to "travel the country and talk to black preachers" about his message of nonviolent protest. Before she can make the trip, King -- like Malcolm -- is silenced by an assassin's bullet.
It's most fortunate that Angelou has been able to turn her experiences, many of them difficult, into a series of classic memoirs. (Nicholas Sinisi)
Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes & Noble.com Biography editor.
The sixth volume of Angelou's autobiography recounts the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., leaders for whom the renowned poet and writer had separately pledged to work just weeks before they were murdered in 1965 and 1968, respectively. Both deaths make her quest for purpose as an African-American woman in the anxious 1960s ever more urgent. Using spare, straightforward prose, Angelou recalls her days as the single mother of a difficult teenage son and as a singer who evolves into a storyteller. Some of this material is recycled, most notably the childhood story that constitutes the core of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and some feels more like filler than compelling or essential narrative. But when Angelou bears firsthand witness to the Watts riots, when she offers vignettes of famous friends and when she speaks with heart about the plight of race relations, the story is engaging and informative.
How Angelou came to write her momentous I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after being stunned by the assassinations of Malcolm X Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Far from a textbook account, this final volume in the writer's series of six memoirs takes readers into the heart of the civil rights movement. Angelou begins in 1964. When she replanted her feet in America to help Malcolm X, she admittedly left a piece of her heart in Ghana with her son. She was also developing artistically during this time, and finding the means by which to express herself to her country and in her community. Any YA who has aimed to accomplish something meaningful and met with personal loss or the disappointment of bad timing, will identify with her. Before she was able to help Malcolm X form the Organization of African-American Unity, he was assassinated. Her mother and protective brother buttressed her spirits, and encouraged her to move forward. From San Francisco to Hawaii and back to California she takes readers into an economically depressed area in Los Angeles before, during, and after it burned. Her next giant step will be appreciated by YAs with an artistic side. She describes performing and writing plays for an African-American theater. Later, after she moved to New York, her pal James Baldwin and others instrumental in changing the view of America in the 1960s are featured prominently. History was in the making and Angelou was in the midst of it as this worthwhile autobiography attests.-Karen Sokol, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The distinguished poet and playwright brings her six-volume cycle of memoirs to a close. Angelou (Even the Stars Look Lonesome) is today among the best-known African-American writers at work-a celebrity, even, thanks to appearances at Bill Clinton's first inauguration, on Sesame Street, and in various Oprah Winfrey productions. But at the beginning of this slender memoir, written with trademark irony and gentle indignation ("Black females, for the most part, know by the time they are ten years old that the world is not much concerned with the quality of their lives or even their lives at all"), she has yet to attain all that. Instead, in the year 1964, we find Angelou in her late 30s, preparing after four years to leave Ghana and the smooth-talking African who's been courting her. She's going home to take on a job as a writer and organizer for Malcolm X. That comes to an end with Malcolm's assassination, which shakes Angelou to the core: "If a group of racists had waylaid Malcolm, killed him in the dark," she writes, "I might have accepted his death more easily. But he was killed by black people as he spoke to black people about a better future for black people and in the presence of his family." Moving back and forth from New York to Los Angeles with stops in between, Angelou spends the '60s in the company of such leaders and writers as Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin, both of whom she portrays respectfully and affectionately. Along the way, she discovers her voice as a writer. In a nice structural turn, her autobiographical cycle ends where it began, with the first sentence of the now-classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Alternately elegiac, meditative, and humorous, a book to savor and remember.
From the Publisher
Praise for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
“I know that not since the days of my childhood, when people in books were more real than the people one saw every day,
have I found myself so moved.”
Gather Together in My Name
“Gather Together in My Name is part of a select body of literature that includes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Claude Brown’s
Manchild in the Promised Land and Ernest J. Gaines’
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Maya Angelou regards the world and herself with intelligence and wit; she records the events of her life with style and grace.”
—William McPherson, The Washington Post Book World
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
“This is a superb account by a great woman who has embraced a difficult destiny with rare intelligence and infectious joie de vivre.”
— The Boston Globe
Read an Excerpt
OneCopyright 2002 by Maya Angelou
The old ark's a-movering
the old ark's a-movering
and I'm going home.
Nineteenth-century American spiritual
The old ark was a Pan Am jet and I was returning to the United States. The airplane had originated in Johannesburg and stopped in Accra, Ghana, to pick up passengers.
I boarded, wearing traditional West African dress, and sensed myself immediately, and for the first time in years, out of place. A presentiment of unease enveloped me before I could find my seat at the rear of the plane. For the first few minutes I busied myself arranging bags, souvenirs, presents. When I finally settled into my narrow seat, I looked around and became at once aware of the source of my discomfort. I was among more white people than I had seen in four years. During that period I had not once thought of not seeing white people; there were European, Canadian and white American faculty at the university where I worked. Roger and Jean Genoud, who were Swiss United Nations personnel, had become my close friends and in fact helped me to raise--or better, corral--my teenage son. So my upset did not come from seeing the white complexion, but rather, from seeing so much of it at one time.
For the next seven hours, I considered the life I was leaving and the circumstances to which I was returning. I thought of the difference between the faces I had just embraced in farewell and those on the plane who looked at me and other blacks who also boarded in Accra with distaste, if not outright disgust. I thought of my rambunctious nineteen-year-old son, whom I was leaving with a family of Ghanaian friends. I also left him under thewatchful eye and, I hoped, tender care of God, who seemed to be the only force capable of controlling him.
My thoughts included the political climate I was leaving. It was a known fact that antigovernment forces were aligning themselves at that very moment to bring down the regime of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's controversial, much adored but also much hated president. The atmosphere was thick with accusations, threats, fear, guilt, greed and capriciousness. Yet at least all the visible participants in that crowded ambience were black, in contrast to the population in the environment to which I was returning. I knew that the air in the United States was no less turbulent than that in Ghana. If my mail and the world newspapers were to be believed, the country was clamoring with riots and pandemonium. The cry of "burn, baby, burn" was loud in the land, and black people had gone from the earlier mode of "sit-in" to "set fire," and from "march-in" to "break-in."
Malcolm X, on his last visit to Accra, had announced a desire to create a foundation he called the Organization of African-American Unity. His proposal included taking the plight of the African-Americans to the United Nations and asking the world council to intercede on the part of beleaguered blacks. The idea was so stimulating to the community of African-American residents that I persuaded myself I should return to the States to help establish the organization. Alice Windom and Vickie Garvin, Sylvia Boone and Julian Mayfield, African-Americans who lived and worked in Ghana, were also immediate supporters. When I informed them that I had started making plans to go back to America to work with Malcolm, they--my friends, buddies, pals--began to treat me as if I had suddenly become special. They didn't speak quite so loudly around me, they didn't clap my back when laughing; nor were they as quick to point out my flaws. My stature had definitely increased.
We all read Malcolm's last letter to me.
I was shocked and surprised when your letter arrived but I was also pleased because I only had to wait two months for this one whereas previously I had to wait almost a year. You see I haven't lost my wit. (smile)
Your analysis of our people's tendency to talk over the head of the masses in a language that is too far above and beyond them is certainly true. You can communicate because you have plenty of (soul) and you always keep your feet firmly rooted on the ground.
I am enclosing some articles that will give you somewhat of an idea of my daily experiences here and you will then be better able to understand why it sometimes takes me a long time to write. I was most pleased to learn that you might be hitting in this direction this year. You are a beautiful writer and a beautiful woman. You know that I will always do my utmost to be helpful to you in any way possible so don't hesitate.
Your brother Malcolm
I looked around the plane at the South African faces and thought of Vus Make, my latest husband, from whom I had separated. He and members of the Pan-African Congress and Oliver Tambo, second in command of the African National Congress, really believed they would be able to change the hearts and thereby the actions of the apartheid-loving Boers. In the early sixties I called them Nation Dreamers. When I thought of Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan-African Congress who had languished for years in prison, and Nelson Mandela, who had recently been arrested, I was sure that they would spend their lives sealed away from the world. I had thought that, despite their passion and the rightness of their cause, the two men would become footnotes on the pages of history.
Now, with the new developments about to take place, I felt a little sympathy for the Boers, and congratulated myself and all African-Americans for our courage. The passion my people would exhibit under Malcolm's leadership was going to help us rid our country of racism once and for all. The Africans in South Africa often said they had been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1958. Well, we were going to give them something new, something visionary, to look up to. After we had cleansed ourselves and our country of hate, they would be able to study our methods, take heart from our example and let freedom ring in their country as it would ring in ours.
Sweet dreams of the future blunted the sharp pain of leaving both my son and the other important man in my life. Given enough time, Guy would eventually grow up and be a fine man, but my romantic other could never fit into my world, nor I into his.
He was a powerful West African who had swept into my life with the urgency of a Southern hurricane. He uprooted my well-planted ideas and blew down all my firmly held beliefs about decorum.
I had been in love many times before I met him, but I had never surrendered myself to anyone. I had given my word and my body, but I had never given my soul. The African had the habit of being obeyed, and he insisted on having all of me. The pleasure I found with him made me unable, or at least unwilling, to refuse.
Within a month of conceding my authority over myself and my life to another, I realized the enormity of my mistake. If I wanted chicken, he said he wanted lamb, and I quickly agreed. If I wanted rice, he wanted yams, and I quickly agreed. He said that I was to go along with whatever he wanted, and I agreed. If I wanted to visit with my friends and he wanted to be alone but not without me, I agreed.
I began to feel the pinch of his close embrace the first time I wanted to sit up and read and he wanted to go to bed.
And, he added, I was needed.
But I thought, "Needed?" Needed like an extra blanket? Like air-conditioning? Like more pepper in the soup? I resented being thought of as a thing, but I had to admit that I allowed the situation myself and had no reason to be displeased with anyone save myself.
Each time I gave up my chicken for his lamb, I ate less. When I gave up a visit with friends to stay home with him, I enjoyed him less. And when I joined him, leaving my book abandoned on the desk, I found I had less appetite for the bedroom.
"You Americans can be bullheaded, stupid and crazy. Why would you kill President Kennedy?" He didn't hear me say, "I didn't kill the president."
My return to the United States came at the most opportune time. I could leave my son to his manly development hurdles; I would leave my great, all-consuming love to his obedient subjects; and I would return to work with Malcolm X on building the Organization of African-American Unity.
By the time we arrived in New York, I had discarded my vilification of the white racists on the plane and had even begun to feel a little more sorry for them.
I was saddened by their infantile, puerile minds. They could be assured that as soon as we American blacks got our country straight, the Xhosas, Zulus, Matabeles, Shonas and others in southern Africa would lead their whites from the gloom of ignorance into the dazzling light of understanding.
The sound in the airport was startling. The open air in Africa was often loud, with many languages being spoken at once, children crying, drums pounding--that had been noise, but at New York's Idlewild Airport, the din that aggressively penetrated the air, insisting on being heard, was clamor. There were shouts and orders, screams, implorings and demands, horns blaring and voices booming. I found a place beside a wall and leaned against it. I had been away from the cacophony for four years, but now I was home.
After I gathered my senses, I found a telephone booth.
I knew I was not ready for New York's strenuous energy, but I needed to explain that to my New York friends. I had written Rosa Guy, my supportive sister-friend, and she was expecting me. I also needed to call Abbey Lincoln, the jazz singer, and her husband, Max Roach, the jazz drummer, who had offered me a room in their Columbus Avenue apartment that I had refused. But most especially, I had to speak to Malcolm.
His telephone voice caught me off guard. I realized I had never spoken to him on the telephone.
"Maya, so you finally got here. How was the trip?" His voice was higher-pitched than I expected.
"You stay at the airport, I'll be there to pick you up. I'll leave right now."
I interrupted. "I'm going straight to San Francisco. My plane leaves soon."
"I thought you were coming to work with us in New York."
"I'll be back in a month . . ." I explained that I needed to be with my mother and my brother, Bailey, just to get used to being back in the United States.
Malcolm said, "I had to leave my car in the Holland Tunnel. Somebody was trying to get me. I jumped in a white man's car. He panicked. I told him who I was, and he said, 'Get down low, I'll get you out of this.' You believe that, Maya?"
I said yes, but I found it hard to do so. "I'll call you next week when I get my bearings."
Malcolm said, "Well, let me tell you about Betty and the girls." I immediately remembered the long nights in Ghana when our group sat and listened to him talk about the struggle, racism, political strategies and social unrest. Then he would speak of Betty. His voice would soften and take on a new melody. We would be told of her great intelligence, of her beauty, of her wit. How funny she was and how faithful. We would hear that she was an adoring mother and a brave and loving wife.
Malcolm said, "She is here now and making a wonderful dinner. You know she is pretty and pregnant. Pretty pregnant." He laughed at his own joke.
I said, "Please give her my regards. I must run for my plane. I'll call you next week."
"Do that. Safe trip."