It’s only been in the last couple of years that I realized that Maya Angelou had written more than one memoir (her most famous one, the one most likely assigned in school, is the first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) And then somehow I started reading them out of order – me, the person who is a stickler for reading mystery series in order! So I’ve read the first, many years ago, and then the third and the fifth more recently. Gather Together in My Name (published in 1974) is the second of her memoirs, and it takes up where Caged Bird leaves off. It’s post-WWII San Francisco/Oakland and teenage mother Maya (Marguerite, shortened to Rita for a short-lived job as a Creole cook) is determined to make her way in the world with as little help as possible from her mother. In doing so she finds ways to make money that are surprising to say the least.
This is a slim book and covers a lot of ground for a time span of just a few years in her life. Maya/Rita has lived more lives than any one person ever really should – here she is a cook, a waitress, a dancer/entertainer, a madam (yes, you read that right!,) a prostitute, a chauffeur, and nearly enlists in the Army. She also goes back to Stamps, Arkansas, the tiny place where she grew up with her grandmother, on the run from her time as a madam. (Things are a little different in Stamps between whites and blacks, to say the least, and she ends up getting quickly sent back to California for her safety after offending a white store clerk.)
Gather Together is a darker volume than the third and fifth books. I had to keep reminding myself that Maya was a 17 year-old single mother, with the judgement/naivety of a 17 year-old. She keeps falling in love with men who aren’t good for her, and she has the mentality (probably common in the late 1940’s) that a man is going to rescue her and her child and allow her to be a homemaker.
He would be a little younger than my father, and handsome in that casual way. His conservative clothes would fit well, and he’d talk to me softly and look at me penetratingly. He’d often pat me and tell me how proud he was of me and I’d strain to make him even prouder. We would live quietly in a pretty little house and I’d have another child, a girl, and the two children (whom he’d love equally) would climb over his knees and I would make three-layer caramel cakes in my electric kitchen until they went off to college.
With all of her travels, adventures, and lucky escapes, one thing that struck me was how her son, Guy, was passed around from caretaker to caretaker, and she left him for long stretches with women who she paid to look after him. During her time as a prostitute, she leaves him in the care of a woman named Big Mary. After an extended absence caring for her mother and brother Bailey, Maya returns to collect Guy only to find that Big Mary’s house is boarded up and she’s moved to parts unknown with Maya’s baby in tow. A neighbor watching from her house tells Maya that Big Mary has a brother in Bakersfield. With only that as a tip a distraught Maya manages to track down her Guy, who by this time is three years old.
He took a fistful of my hair and twisted and pulled, crying all the time. I couldn’t untangle the hair or pull my head away. I stood holding him while he raged at being abandoned. My sobs broke free on the waves of my first guilt. I had loved him and never considered that he was an entire person. Separate from my boundaries, I had not know before that he had and would have a life beyond being my son, my pretty baby, my cute doll, my charge. In the plowed farmyard near Bakersfield, I began to understand the uniqueness of that person. He was three and I was nineteen, and never again would I think of him as a beautiful appendage of myself.
Poor Guy! I am glad that I read this because I want to read all of her memoirs, but this one wasn’t one of my favorites so far, probably because young Maya is an unappealing combination of naive, snobby, and headstrong. She gets herself into some insane situations by virtue of ignorance, misplaced self-confidence, and desperation to be loved. As usual, the writing is elegant and thoughtful, if a tad detached. For me it wasn’t as captivating a read as the third (Singin’ and Swingin’ And Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) and fifth (All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.) But of course Maya is older in these books and has more about herself and the world figured out, and they both are set in interesting locales all over the world. I was shocked to read about the things young Maya did, knowing what we all know about the dignified, insightful, talented writer and poet she became, the lady who read poetry at President Clinton’s first inauguration. It’s a remarkable testament to the power of people to learn, grow, and change over the course of their lives.