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Do you enjoy reading autobiographies? All God’s children need travelling shoes by Maya Angelou is an inspiring life story that will capture your attention. This autobiography was first published in 1986 by Random House, New York. It is a non-fiction and a memoir piece of work comprising of 208 pages. A memoir involves a more intimate focus of the author’s feelings, emotions and memories which makes it slightly different from an autobiography. This book report about this memoir is meant to be descriptive. You might be wondering what led me to read this book and decide to compile this report. First, I like the author Maya Angelou who has proven against all odds to be a very talented writer, actress, poet, singer and activist amongst her many achievements. She spoke and recited a poem ‘On the pulse of the morning’ at the inuguration ceremony of President Clinton in the United States in 1993 and has received various awards. Secondly, autobiographies capture my attention as they are meant to inspire the audience.
Maya Angelou was born in 1928 and has written a series of autobiographies, All God’s children need travelling shoes being her fifth volume. (Drew 18) states that her autobiographical works provide powerful insights into the evolution of black women in the 20th century. This autobiographical chronicle begun with, I know why caged birds sings (1970) and other volumes in the series include; Gather together in my name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and getting merry like Christmas (1976), The heart of a woman (1981), All God’s children need travelling shoes (1986) and A song flung up to heaven (2002). Throughout her five-volume series, a variety of roles and experiences have been clearly brought out such as; silenced black child living in the American south, a rape victim, a daughter, a mother, dancer, actress, wife, singer, composer, administrator, director and an African-American living in West Africa. In addition to the autobiographical works, she also has written numerous poems and received over thirty honorary degrees.
Maya Angelou loves writing and it is evident in the continuity of the books she has written. (Drew 18) suggests that her pieces of works reads like a novel owing to her ability to craft language in prose that reads easily in paragraph form yet often sounds like poetry. This implies that she possesses attractive and impressive richness of language. The first book, I know why the caged birds sings, focuses on her childhood years that were full of humiliations. She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St.Louis, Missouri, her father was a cook and a mother was a real estate agent as well as nurse. Her parents divorced at the age three and she was brought up by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. She became a victim of rape at a tender age by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. This episode ends with the birth of her child, Guy. Her son’s birth thus can be viewed as symbolically as representing the birth of another interesting text, Gather together in my name. She narrates this next volume as a kind of a struggle to bring up a child who is born out of wedlock. She also tries to perform her roles well as both a mother and an artist. The main theme in this book being survival; against all discriminations whether racial or gender-based.
The next volume focuses on Angelou’s marriage and was considered a period of stability for her and her son, though it was short since they divorced after five years. She was married to Tosh Angelou, a former sailor. She went back to dancing and toured Africa and Europe though she felt guilt at neglecting her only child. (Drew 19) writes that the heart of a woman finds Angelou active in the civil rights movement as an activist and also married again though she eventually gets divorced. Guilty feelings of neglect of her child continue to be displayed in this volume.
In, All God’s children need travelling shoes, Angelou becomes totally involved in her search for a symbolic home and her admiration for Ghana. She revels in the vitality of the native and the expatriate peoples she meets. She bonds with landscape and the history of the country (Lyman 110). This volume addresses Angelou’s quest for her ancestry in Africa. The characters in this volume are beyond the family members, unless for Angelou and her son, Guy. All the volumes reveals the various obstacles such as racism and oppression that Angelou went through in her quest to a well-educated and inspiring black woman.
The setting of the book
This autobiography is a form of travel writing and the action takes place in West Africa, Ghana in 1960s when Angelou arrives from the States. Specific locations in Ghana include the capital city Accra, university of Ghana where her son enrolls for his degree and Keta which is the village that the authoress visits at the end of her stay in Ghana.
The plot summary
This book is the fifth installment in a series of captivating narrative memoirs by Ms. Angelou. It mainly focuses on her stay in Africa while in an attempt to discover as Africa as her ‘home’. It is a life story of Maya and her seventeen-year old son, Guy whom she brings to Africa to enroll for his studies at the University of Ghana after the recovery from an accident that is captured in the previous series. Partly it is travel writing by Angelou that enables her to recover her sense of self-worth resulting from the divorce process she undergoes in the heart of a woman.
The book begins with a sad episode of a long wait for her son’s recovery from a car accident and her hopes have been fading owing to the possibility of Guy’s death displayed in the following statement
‘July and August of 1962 stretched out like fat men yawning after a sumptuous dinner. They had every right to gloat, for they had eaten me up. Gobbled me down. Consumed my spirit, not in a wild rush, but slowly, with the obscene patience of certain of certain victors. I became a shadow walking in the white hot streets, and a dark spectre in the hospital (4).
Eventually Guy does recover and Angelou secures a job at the Institute of African studies in Accra and she temporarily feels comfortable while living with the people of the African roots who accept her. She writes ‘we were Black Americans in West Africa, where for the first time in our lives the color of our skin was accepted as correct and normal (Angelou 3)” Although she meets many friends and travels to the interior parts of Ghana to discover the African cultures, she still has trouble adapting to her new way of life. The final scene of the book is at the Accra airport as Angelou goes back to the states. The closure of this book finds Guy, a college student who has become independent and is being separated from his mother. Angelou refers to him as an African prince who ‘stood, looking like a young lord of summer, straight, sure among his Ghanaians companions (Angelou 208)’
Angelou thus returns to the United States having been convinced that home is not a physical or a geographical location such as Africa but rather it is a psychological state. She is delighted to learn that her survival depends upon finding herself within herself, wearing her travelling shoes, like all God’s children.
The characters in the autobiography
Unlike her previous volumes that were characterized with the family characters, this volume accommodates characters beyond her family such as friends and the roommates whom they rent an apartment together. Principal Characters in the narration include; Maya Angelou, Guy, Julian Mayfield, Ana Livia, Vicki Garvin, Alice Windom, Kwame Nkrumah, Kojo and Malcolm X . Maya is both the narrator and the main character in this memoir. Guy is her son who is enrolled at the University of Ghana. He dates a woman who is a year older than her mother and when her mother gets to know about this affair she threatens to beat up her son. Maya’s character in this memoir is tested and determined through her confrontations with her son. Guy is quick to politely insist on his autonomy by calling her ‘little mother’ (Angelou 149). She is torn between wanting to let her son go and monitoring him as a protective mother.
Vicki Garvin and Alice Windom are the black women whom they share a bungalow. They are educated but neither of them is able to secure an employment that reflects on their abilities and they are a sign of discrimination on the basis of gender. Kojo is the village boy they hire to do household chores in their bungalow and he is an apparent alternative for Guy who has now grown and residing in the university dormitory. Julian Mayfield is an author and a journalist together with his wife, Anna Livia represents Angelou’s friendships with the African Americans. Malcolm X is a Angelou’s friend who assists her to view racism in a more open-minded manner. President Kwame Nkrumah offered African Americans a permanent residency and Angelou refers to him as the ‘first American negro intellectual’ (Angelou 124)
In, All God’s children need travelling shoes, Angelou brings out significant themes including; acceptance, racism, survival and motherhood. The theme of motherhood is well potrayed in this piece of work as Angelou struggles to be a responsible mother. She secures a job and enrolls her son in one of the best universities in Ghana. She threatens to strike Guy when she discovers that he is having an affair with a woman older than herself. Thus at the end of the book, Guy is viewed as an African prince whom his mother is proud of his upbringing and consequently has identified with his ancestry. This theme is also displayed in her search for her motherland, Africa that led her to settle in Ghana for a discovery of her roots.
The theme of racism is brought out in all the autobiographical books that Angelou. (Hagen 113) writes that as Angelou narrates the episodes in this book, she opens her eyes to the prejudice among various black groups and faces the realization that racism is not confined to the whites only. Racism is a major obstacle that Angelou faced right from her childhood as she was brought up in a black community. This is compounded by the two rape experiences with Freeman who threatens to kill her brother in case she discloses the information to the parents. Another incident of racism is displayed in the book; I know why the caged birds sing. (Lupton 68) reveals the white dentist’s remark that he would ‘rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s’. This statement depicts the depth of racism that made Angelou believe that racism is dominant among the whites. In this volume, she realizes that racism is not just about white versus blacks or blacks versus white, but it implies any prejudice based on either skin colour or descent. Any group of people can be racist on the basis of one reason or the other.
Acceptance is also a central theme in this book as Angelou narrates her search for a home where she can find unconditional acceptance. Her search is meant to live and interact with people who did not discriminate her on the basis of her skin colour. Angelou found that home in Ghana where she was treated with little discrimination unlike in her American home where she experienced a humiliating childhood life. Though she is an American, she felt more accepted in Ghana, West Africa.
Survival is another major theme that is revealed throughout all the volumes of autobiographies that Angelou has authored. The discriminations and the displacement that she has been through when she makes her pilgrimage to Africa in search of her ancestry strengthens her and enables her to leave Africa as more enlightened person. She survives through all these hardships and learns that any person can be a racist for one reason or the other. Another major lesson that she learns is that the search for a geographical place as a ‘home’ is rather misleading since she realizes it is all about the inner self; the self-worth that contributes to overall one’s security.
Growth, development and education
All God’s children need travelling shoes is a book that focuses on the growth, development and education of Maya Angelou as a life long learner. The previous volumes reveal the obstacles that she faced from her childhood to her career development in early adulthood and eventually to her decision to search for her roots. (Lupton 142) suggests that the plot of this volume begins in Ghana and ends with Angelou’s decision to return to America thus ending both the series and the journey.
Angelou matures in her role of motherhood to his son, Guy. In the previous volumes, she neglected Guy and she felt guilty about it. She realizes that she needs to nurture her son well and makes a decision never to leave him under the care of other people. The decision to stay in Ghana is partly to enroll her son at the University of Ghana. As a responsible mother there is mixed feelings of love and conflicts, she wants to let him go and at the same time she feels he needs her supervision. This is revealed when she writes ‘he’s gone. My lovely little boy is gone and will never return’ (Angelou 186) when Guy decides to stay in the university dormitory. With time she understands that he needs autonomy to make his own decision concerning his life. As Angelou leaves for America and Guy decides to reside in Ghana, she is proud mother who feels that she has immensely contributed well-being of her son.
She also grows and develops into an emancipated black woman. From a shy and humiliated girl, she rises against all odds to be most renowned American writer and poet. She is no longer a victim of manipulation by good-looking men but an assertive individual who is able to stand her ground no matter the prevailing circumstances. She has received various awards based on her works meant to emancipate women in her society.
Angelou develops into a patriotic American. She is satisfied and accepts herself as an American. This stems from her pilgrimage in Ghana that enabled her to understand racism in an open minded manner by realizing that no group of people should be entirely be labeled as racists since any person can be one. This realization has been significant in building her self-worth or self-esteem that was lost in her early childhood. Angelou’s ‘double consciousness: her American and African selves’ develop through her strong friendships with the black women as well as the African-Americans in Ghana (Angelou 113). As she leaves Ghana, the American self is dominant.
Latha reveals that she also matures in character and in writing as this stay in Africa enables her to take the stories of Africa back with her to the United States. This has led to her countless interviews on television, in periodicals and in the popular press as well as the numerous works that she authors on the blacks. Latha argues that the poem that she delivers on the inauguration of President Bill Clinton is a powerful piece of work that reflects on her worldly wise maturity, the wisdom and knowledge that is being attributed to the countless places she has been.
In conclusion, All God’s Children need travelling shoes, is an autobiographical work that sums up the inspiring life history of Maya Angelou that begun in I know why the caged birds sings where her childhood is characterized by displacement and hopelessness. This volume depicts Angelou as having developed as a woman, mother, American and also in character in writing. Travelling shoes as used in the title of the book depicts her sojourning in Africa in search for a symbolic home. My very final thought concerning this memoir is that it is educative, interesting and inspiring and I would recommend it for reading. Other than the smooth flow of events, the richness of language in this book is an important aspect to note as you read this book. One aspect that I do not like about this book is theme on racism. At the beginning of the volume, Angelou has a perception that racism involves blacks and whites but towards the end of her pilgrimage in Ghana, she discovers that anyone can be a racist for one reason or the other.
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