You know who was awesome?
Maya freaking Angelou!
Many of you have probably read her classic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I first read that in high school and loved it. But I wasn’t aware until just a few years ago that she had written an entire series of memoirs – six of them total, in fact! I read the third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, in 2014. And now I’ve read the fifth one, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. I honestly don’t know why I’ve read these memoirs out of order! (Usually I’m such a stickler for reading things in order. So be it.)
This book chronicles Angelou’s experiences in Ghana in the early 1960’s. She had separated from her Egyptian husband, who is barely mentioned at the outset. Three days into their new life in Ghana, her teenage son, Guy, is in an automobile accident, and is hospitalized. Angelou is understandably beside herself. Friends in Ghana, African American ex-patriots, bolstered Angelou’s spirits during the difficult time of Guy’s recovery. They took her to the Flagstaff House, the seat of government. Angelou writes,
Seeing Africans enter and leave the formal building made me tremble with an awe I had never known. Their authority on the marble steps again proved that Whites had been wrong all along. Black and brown skin did not herald debasement and a divinely created inferiority. We were capable of controlling our cities, our selves and our lives with elegance and success. Whites were not needed to explain the working of the world, nor the mysteries of the mind.
I was very much interested in Angelou’s exploration of the ways in which her African American community did and did not fit in with Ghana culture. Many of the immigrants chose Ghana, Angelou writes, “because of its progressive posture and its brilliant president, Kwame Nkrumah. He had let it be known that American Negroes would be welcome to Ghana.” Her circle was hungry for connection to a place that they desperately wanted to feel like home and in which they wanted to be embraced.
We had come home, and if home was not what we had expected, never mind, out need for belonging allowed us to ignore the obvious and to create real places or even illusory places, befitting out imaginations.
As the mother of one son (who is about to turn five) I was particularly touched by Angelou’s observations about her son growing up and not needing her as much anymore. Guy recovers from his injuries and starts attending university, moving away from home. At one point a Ghanaian friend tells her that Guy is dating a thirty-six year old woman, and Maya kind of freaks out. When confronted by Angelou, he says, “Oh, Mother, really. Don’t you think it’s time I had a life of my own?” Angelou writes,
How could his life be separate from my life? I had been mother of a child so long I had no preparation for life on any other level…His existence defined my own…
She realizes that she needs to find her own identity as more than Guy’s mother, as painful as the realization is.
In the last third of the book, Malcolm X comes to Ghana and is embraced by the ex-pats as well as the Ghanian people. Maya’s characterization of Malcolm is so nuanced. I felt like I really got a sense of him as a person, in a time of great personal change for him, as he had just broken with the Nation of Islam.
I really enjoyed this book. It is very much a book about finding a place that feels like home and Maya coming into her own as a woman and not just a mother. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of 1960’s Ghana, a country I knew nothing about. It was fascinating getting a glimpse of the intellectual, driven people who left America just as the Civil Rights movement was coming into its own and searched for a place that (they hoped) would welcome them with open arms. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is an engrossing portrayal of a vibrant country, community, and above all, the compelling Ms. Angelou herself.