Celebrity autobiographies? Ugh! Too many are self-aggrandizements and/or flushed-out elaborations of scanty press packets. Titillation and allusion shape the redundant seduction of the reader already seduced by fame. Confessions and pseudo-confessions are often embarrassingly hollow and juiceless. Rare are the weighty sojourns into soul/self or the rich evocations of an era. Too often sanitizing the past for public consumption is meticulously done to the point of tedium. Or so full of emotional ooze and odious expose as to arouse suspicion re authenticity. Rarely do they resonate. But after a dozen or so pages of Maya Angelou’s “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” one is zipping uncritically along--captured in her lovely and personable embrace.
In this book, the noted black playwright picks up life in her mid-30s. It is the eve of the near-death of her only son; and, the metaphorical loss of a mother whose manchild claims independence. In self-conscious prose, Angelou recounts her adventures as an Afro-American expatriate in the Ghana of the mid-to-late 1960s. There she joins a disgruntled and confused group of black Americans at odds with the fatherland that rejects them as first-class citizens and the idealized motherland that fails to live up to their naive assumptions:
“Our people had always longed for home. For centuries, we had sung about a place not built with hands, where the streets were paved with gold and were washed with honey and milk. There the saints would march around wearing white robes and jeweled crowns. There, at last, we would study war no more, and, more important, no one would wage war against us again.
“The old Black deacons, ushers, mothers of the church and junior choirs only partially meant heaven as that desired destination. In the yearning, heaven and Africa were inextricably combined.”
In Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana “by accident,” Angelou discovers a representative cross section of urban and rural blacks which she subdivides into four groups: teachers and farmers, American government reps, businessmen, and political emigres. She aligns herself with the latter.
After finding a job beneath her talents and paying much less than she merits (although admittedly a lot more than the average Ghanian male could hope to earn), she’s off and writing as we share her experiences: A haughty woman from Sierra Leone makes a comical issue of rice; a magnetic and mysterious lover demands she wed him; a black king and his royal family adopt her as Auntie; a memorably chatty hairdresser comes to a haunting end; a clever young boy takes her as benefactress; a side trip to Germany to revive Genet’s “The Blacks” results in a bizarre ethnic showdown; and she meets Malcolm X returning from his transformation at Mecca.
This extravagant peopling of “All God’s Children” is interwoven with adages and bits of folk/street wisdom salted with Angelou’s reflections as she contrasts the black American and the black African:
“Was it possible that I and all American Blacks had been wrong . . . ? Could the cutting treatment we often experienced have been stimulated by something other than our features, our hair and color? Was the odor of old slavery so obvious that people were offended and lashed out at us automatically? Had what we judged as racial prejudice less to do with race and more to do with our particular ancestors’ bad luck and having been caught, sold and driven like beasts?”
The answer comes, ironically, later, from the splendid declaration of a black king: “We are black, BLACK! And we give no explanation, no apology.”
Maya Angelou tends to play the coquette at moments and confession is forthcoming only by way of device. Angelou’s pen wavers when the focus turns inward, and her language becomes careful. You can feel her not saying certain things. Her posture is discreet and ladylike as prescribed by Protestant tradition. Sans philosophical weight, Angelou nevertheless recreates her attitude with dramatic clarity. She evokes the temper of the civil rights era with unquestionable authenticity. While her language runs to the lay and not the literary, there is no doubt that her series of autobiographical writings is an outstanding literary event.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” remains my contender for Angelou’s magnum opus. This should not and does not diminish “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” as a thoroughly enjoyable segment from the life of a celebrity. It is an important document drawing more much needed attention to the hidden history of a people both African and American.