The Social, Political and Cultural Issues Which Serve as the Backdrop of Maya Angelou’s Memoir
Maya Angelou’s series of seven autobiographies collectively captures the various sections of her enthralling and turbulent life. The Heart of a Woman (1981), as her fourth autobiography is an account of the beginning of her writing career, her encounters with several political figures, her active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and her relationship with her son Guy. “Maya Angelou concentrates on the biography sub-genre as a vital tool of self-expression at the personal level as well as the collective levels” (Kolawole 190). Through a description of her personal experiences and relationships, Angelou manages to draw out a number of social, political, and cultural issues pervading the environment which serves as the backdrop of her memoir. This particular volume is possibly the most political of her autobiographies as it touches on the period of her life where she was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement and was also involved in the African struggle for freedom. However, the text differs from a historical text in that it is able to focus on the personal experiences and relationships of the author amidst all the socio-political turbulences. According to Mary Kolawole, “(b)y drawing attention to her personal experience, Angelou, like many African-American writers, deploys individual reality to give expression to the collective awareness” (190). The stress is on the experience of motherhood, especially that of a black mother. Though almost all her works undoubtedly have feminist leanings, the type of feminism that Angelou explores is more identifiable as a ‘womanist’ approach.
The term ‘womanism’ was coined by Alice Walker who describes a womanist as “A black feminist or feminist of colour”(xi), and on its relationship with feminism, she says: “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender”(xii). This is suggestive of the inclusion of the term ‘womanism’ and ‘feminism’ under the same collective umbrella. The term is a result of the belief that ‘feminism’ does not encompass the perspectives of black women, prompting the need to create a specific type of feminism that is inclusive and focused on black women. It leans toward a preference for “women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility, and women’s strength… Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (Walker xi). It accounts the relationship of black women with the men in their lives, as well as with other women and often touches on the ways in which black women support and empower black men. It does not necessarily represent any political standpoint and values other than the honoring and appreciation of black women’s strength and experiences. According to Deborah King, “the connotation of ‘women’ within the black community have become positive ones, asserting and affirming the value in female of adult qualities such as ability, independence, creativity, loving, and strength”(1486). Thus, Maya Angelou’s The Heart of a Woman, which explores the experiences of womanhood, the strength and resilience that helped her through a perplexing and complex life as a black woman can pass as a remarkable womanist text. Moreover, Angelou herself quite perfectly fits Alice Walker’s description of a womanist who “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless”(xii).
The novel unfolds as a multifaceted story of a woman who is struggling with her career, with motherhood, with her love life, as well as with the socio-political issues of her time. In the book Angelou describes her journey of shifting her career from singing to writing, her intricate and perplexing relationship with her son, her dynamic love life and difficult marriage, her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement under Martin Luther King Jr., and her relocation to Egypt and Ghana, exploring her heritage. In the memoir, Angelou commences her narration in 1957, when the United States was “a-moverin’ to, fro, up, down and often in concentric circles”(Angelou 1), when the relationship between the blacks and the whites was “a maze of contradictions”(Angelou 1). The beginning alone foreshadows the rather political vein that will run throughout the text. It manages to serve as a remarkable historical text touching on the most significant social and political events of the time and the socio-political atmosphere is vividly perceivable through the lens of the author’s experience. But apart from this focus on the social level, her personal and individual experiences took precedence, distinctly identifying the book as a personal memoir rather than a historical record.
Angelou’s relationship with her son serves as possibly the most important, ‘the heart’ of the memoir. Her son, Guy Johnson was coming of age around the time this volume is set. With the outset of the American Civil Rights Movement calling for a particular brand of child rearing, motherhood for Angelou was intense and complex. Though Guy himself is not depicted as being a difficult child or in need of any sort of special nurturing, there was still a certain level of anxiety in Angelou, maternal anxieties that were both universal and exclusively African-American. Some anxieties like that over the absence of a father-figure in her child’s life prove universal as it is a common phenomenon amongst single-mothers. When she develops romantic ties, she always seeks for a possible father figure for Guy apart from her personal satisfaction. This need she feels enables her to bear the alienation and detachment she feels when Guy develops a friendship with her husband Vus and is no longer dependent on her as much as he used to be. When she detects this change in their relationship, she simply says, “I yearned for our old closeness, and his dependence, but I knew he needed a father, a male image, a man in his life” (Angelou 238). Putting aside her own selfish desire and possessiveness over her son, she manages to accept what she believes to be in her son’s best interest. The power of motherhood and the reflection of a maturity and emotional strength on the part of the womanist author prove significant. The intense sense of responsibility of a mother is highlighted when she recalls the accident her family met with when Guy was seven, and laments in self-blame: “we had not caused the accident… But I was the mother, the most powerful person in his world who could make everything better… I could have prevented the accident” (264). Motherhood, in Angelou’s case, motivates and drives her to strive for seemingly impossible and unachievable qualities, consequently resulting in a self-actualization and awareness of potentialities.
As a black mother, Angelou is faced with a very complicated responsibility where she needs to make his son aware of the true condition of the limitations that comes with his skin colour, but at the same time encourage him not to submit to racial prejudices. According to Angelou, “the black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion… within the home, she must display a right to rule which at any moment, by a knock at the door or a ring of the telephone can be exposed as false. In the face of these contradictions, she must provide a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged”(44). Achieving the balance between instinctive maternal nurturing and a need to let them achieve maturity and awareness happens to be a difficult task for the author. Despite these difficulties, she manages to raise a mature young man, who, towards the end of the volume, speaks of his wishes for her mother to “grow up”(Angelou 345) . This role reversal serves as a pleasant reminder of the impressive work the author had done in bringing up her child despite the turbulent condition of their lives and despite his coming of age in the midst of social upheaval. This relationship between black mother and child adheres to the features of womanism, both in the aspect of its preference for women’s culture through motherhood, as well as its portrayal of a black woman’s relationship with a black man, the former supporting and empowering the latter.
This volume also draws out the strength of the author through her professional career and political activism. Despite never receiving proper education and always having pursued her career in the field of performance art, Angelou manages to be a resourceful worker and motivated writer. As the book talks of the initiation of Angelou’s writing career, we get to see that even great and prolific literary icons like the author herself had initially faced harsh criticisms. With striking courage combined with an intense awareness of her cultural heritage, she talks of her determination: “If I ended in defeat, at least I would be trying. Trying to overcome was black people’s honorable tradition”(52). Even after her writing was not so well received by the members of the Harlem Writers’ Guild, she did not give up and had now earned a position in the pantheon of American literature. The remarkable resilience and determination she reflects can be held accountable for the success and recognition she had received. Even when it comes to political activism she was determined and courageous. Though she is not familiar with the type of work or knows how to type, she accepts the position offered to her as coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Black solidarity, a significant component of womanism, is also drawn out multiple times, serving as a weapon against the atrocities of the racial subjugation imposed by the whites. When she attended the Harlem church where Dr. King made an appearance, she noticed that those in the church were “one people, indivisible in the sight of God, responsible to each other and for each other”(Angelou 69). Here she voices her belief of championing this unity over the white community’s hatred towards them, she proposes, “we the most hated, must take hate into our hands and by the miracle of love, turn loathing into love”(Angelou 69-70).
Angelou explored the resurgent interest in African culture that was prevalent during the Civil Right Movement. Partly as an act of awareness and assertion of her ancestral roots, she marries an African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make but this act proves unfulfilling and complicated as the husband turns out to be philandering and economically irresponsible. His complete upholding of African values in conjugal administration is also problematic as the author is not given any space for self-assertion and awareness while playing “the cared-for housewife”, “the role marriage had forced upon (her)”(261). Though she courageously and determinedly tried to assume the role of the traditional African wife as housekeeper, cook, and lover as homage to her African heritage, she could not completely depend on anyone else but herself. Hence, she sought for a job with the help of an African-American journalist David Du Bois even with her husband’s disapproval. Though she was well aware of her African heritage she also revealed that realignment with ancestral practices is not positively suited to the modern world.
Angelou opens her book thanking her sisters/friends whose love encouraged her to spell her name ‘W O M A N’, attesting to the significance given to networking with other people for her own self-growth and maturity. Throughout the book we are introduced to a number of figures who play such integral roles in the life of the author. The progress and growth in the life of the author is narrated in light of a firm recognition of the importance of collective unity and power for individual growth. Angelou celebrates the love and integrity amongst the black community in which she plays an active part. According to Deborah King, “a womanist is spirited and spiritual, determined and decisive, committed to struggle and convicted of victory. A womanist acknowledges the particulist experiences and cultural heritage of black women, resists systems of domination, and insists on liberty and self-determination of all people”(1487). Through a study of The Heart of a Woman, we see that Angelou in the book, through her celebration of her relationships with black men and other black women, her strength, maturity, and resilience, and her intense awareness of cultural heritage, undoubtedly fits the description of a womanist.
Works Cited Angelou, Maya. The Heart of a Woman. London: Virago Press. 1981. Print. Gillespie, Marcia. Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. New York: Doubleday. 2008. Pdf. Higashida, Cheryl. Black Internationalist Feminism. Urbana: University of Chicago Press. 2013. Print. King, Deborah K. “Womanist, Womanism, Womanish” . Women’s Studies Encyclopedia:Q-Z. Vol. 3. Ed. Helen Tierney. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. 1999. Pdf. 1486-1487. Kolawole, Mary Ebun Modupe. Womanism and African Consciousness. Trenton: Africa World Press Inc. 1997. Pdf. Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Garden. London: The Women’s Press. 1984. Pdf.
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